In September 2017, New York City completed its renovation of one of three subway stations at 53rd Street in Brooklyn as part of the city’s $72 million “Enhanced Station Initiative.” As subway riders stepped onto the platform and waited for the R train, they noticed odd slanted planks of wood bolted to the walls. What was initially thought to be some sort of handrail for children or the elderly turned out to be what the NYMTA (New York Metro Transit Authority) calls “leaning bars,” which were designed to replace the subway’s classic benches; riders across the board were infuriated by the introduction of what is better known as hostile architecture into their daily transit routes. The station at 53rd Street is the first of thirty stations across the city planned to undergo such changes.

The attempted makeover of the subway stations on the MTA’s part largely falls under a design trend better known as hostile architecture. Albeit centuries old, hostile architecture is resurfacing in cities like Paris, Chicago, and London, where it aims to fend off perceived threats from dangerous groups, criminals, and any unwanted presence practically anywhere in a city.

In New York, the MTA insists that the benches were installed “after surveying the best practices of other transit systems,” despite riders’ backlash at the claim. And while many like the NYMTA believe that hostile architecture makes urban spaces safer and more utilitarian, hostile architecture also has a plethora of implications on public space and how people interact with their cities.

hostile architecture

Leaning benches in New Zealand. (CC: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner)

Design As Nefarious

Historically speaking, hostile architecture has been around for centuries, although it doesn’t have a single source or origin. In 18th Century London, for example, the city’s garden squares were enclosed with railings to keep the wealthy in and the poor out. A century later, Downtown Cairo was designed after Haussmann’s vision of Paris. Under Napoleon Bonaparte III, Haussmann used urban design to prevent people from protesting in late 19th Century Paris by creating large intersections between avenues that gave authorities 360° views of the area. 

Proponents have argued that hostile or defensive architecture is necessary to safeguard residents from the misfits who are perceived as threats to our cities. And while these tactics are intended to target drug dealers, loiterers, and the homeless, the differently-abled, elderly, and other individuals almost always feel the biggest impact of hostile architecture.

Manifestations of hostile or defensive architecture can come in many shapes and sizes and serve a multitude of functions. The most notorious manifestation of hostile architecture is anti-homeless installations that make it almost impossible for anyone to sleep rough on the street  − as if it wasn’t hard enough already.

Last year in Paris, water sprinklers were installed on a private property to prevent the homeless from sleeping in front of it, although the owners claimed that they were not specifically targeting the homeless. In response, a French charity started the hashtag #soyonshumains (let’s be human), encouraged people to take pictures of hostile architectural interventions across the city, and eventually created a map indicating where these interventions are.

Other cities, like Bournemouth in England, have installed looping bagpipe soundtracks at train stations, making rough sleeping virtually impossible, while last month in Seattle, the City installed two dozen unneeded bike racks where a homeless camp once stood just weeks before in a blunt expression of its intentions.

Other forms of hostile architecture are small modifications made to elements that already exist in a city. The ‘Camden bench,’ a cousin of the leaning bench, caused an outcry in England when the bench, which is both uncomfortable and impractical, was installed across the UK. Similarly, some cities have modified benches in common public spaces – like in squares, pedestrian streets, or elsewhere – with metal ridges to deflect skateboarders, who are seen as a nuisance in many cities.

hostile architecture

The infamous “Camden bench” (CC: Factory Furniture)

Public Space: Othering the Other

Alongside their architectural counterparts, urban planners attempt to guide how communities interact with spatiality in cities. When streets cater primarily to pedestrians or when large swathes of land are dedicated to urban gardens, city residents are allowed easier access to public spaces. And while it’s commonplace to think of city space as accessible to everyone, how public space is configured often dictates how different groups access the city.

In most cases, public space belongs to the city municipality or another governing body. Thus, in designing public space, the city’s governing body decides how spaces fit into a city and what function they serve.

In the creation or modification of public spaces, governing bodies ask themselves: “Who do we want and who do we not want in these spaces?” Consequentially, what are presupposed common spaces for the public are often tailored to specific people and specific behavior. When cities set up spikes on air vents to evict the homeless or segregate open areas to make it harder for youths or skateboarders to congregate, they are also saying: “We do not want you here.”

Hostile architecture in Marseilles.

Anti-homeless spikes in Marseilles, France. (CC: Docteur Cosmos)

Once the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior is drawn, cities have the power to commission urban planners to encourage or discourage certain kinds of behavior. In this sense, hostile architecture does not only shape physical spaces, but also informs how individuals interact with them. Aside from its distasteful aesthetic and intentional discomfort, people rejected the Camden Bench because it suggested that people could only sit down for a limited time. The bench was specifically designed to prevent people from wanting to rest for longer.

If skateboarding or aimless lounging on a bench are seen as negative activities, then city residents are only able to occupy public space in ways that are “socially acceptable,” or so says architectural historian, Iain Borden. He calls this phenomenon the “mallification of public space.” “It’s OK, for example, to sit around as long as you are in a cafe or in a designated place where certain restful activities such as drinking a frappuccino should take place, but not activities like busking, protesting or skateboarding. In this case, the “mallification” of public space refers to the conversion of public space into spaces that only allow specific activities.

City authorities, like the New York MTA, do not publicly announce whether certain aspects of a city are policed in such a manner. Instead, they place their policy decisions within a utilitarian framework – what is for the greater good or majority in society – with the intention of making cities “safer.”

Parisian authorities have said multiple times that they do not condone any form of hostile architecture, but since the majority of hostile design is on private property, the City claims it is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to banning it. As for the leaning benches, they were seen as the “best practice” for transportation. These instances prove that governing bodies have effectively given themselves the right to decide what is best for the majority, and what or who makes cities safer.

hostile architecture

A “pebble bench,” in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten, which makes sitting for prolonged times very uncomfortable. (CC: Fridolin Freudenfett )

Ethics of Hostile Architecture

Late last December, Dean Harvey, co-founder of Factory Furniture, which produces the Camden Bench, told CNN that hostile architecture “can provide solutions” to problems faced in cities. He goes on to list loitering and drug dropping as problems cities face. In the same interview, architect James Furzer insists that identifying these “problems,” which Harvey believes can be solved with hostile architecture, depends on what is “classified as anti-social behavior.” This dilemma is not just an afterthought, but also an ethical question. Where is the line drawn for city authorities in deciding what is or isn’t “socially acceptable?”

Valerie Jaharis, representative for student health on New York City’s Barnard college campus, expressed her frustration with the city’s hostile design in an interview with progrss. “The city has actively not made it easier for me to navigate,” she says. She explains that New York City has very limited infrastructure in place to accommodate the disabled. “They are working on redoing [parts of] the subway system but [haven’t] inserted elevators at the stations as the law requires. They promised to do it years ago and have made very little progress.” 

She also expresses that stores usually allow shoppers to shop only for 30 minutes and do not tolerate loitering. Jaharis explains that these stores are often the only space the homeless have to avoid bad weather. According to her, actively barring the homeless from these spaces creates a hostile environment. 

In his paper “Hostile Urban Architecture: A Critical Discussion of the Seemingly Offensive Art of Keeping People Away,” Karl de Fine Licht peels back the layers of the ethics of hostile architecture. Essentially, he reduces its different dimensions to understanding how different groups may benefit or be harmed by the trend. And although it is by definition “hostile,” he suggests that this kind of architecture should not necessarily have negative implications.

When skateboarders are dispelled from densely populated urban areas, for example, their suffering is not as magnified as others, according to De Fine Licht. In a rather bold conclusion, he argues that many skateboarders are predominantly white middle-class males, meaning they are relatively advantaged individuals who may not suffer greatly from anti-skateboarding measures. To determine the impact of hostile architecture, there needs to be a clear understanding of who will benefit or suffer from what, which is often difficult to ascertain.

De Fine Licht simulates this by giving parks as an example, claiming that when loiterers or the homeless are pushed out of parks, parks become accessible to everyone. What’s missing from his argument is the impact on the loiterers and homeless, which is arguably larger and often results in the displacement of these groups. In this sense, even when the potential impact seems positive, a lot of the time, hostile architecture counteracts its initial purpose.

A reasonable way of going about this, in accordance with some of De Fine Licht’s work, is to understand how and why individual groups in society occupy certain spaces. De Fine Licht claims that research proves that when skateboarders are directed to designated skate parks, people are less likely to get injured. The reason they occupy quad-like areas outside large buildings in the first place, like the notorious skateboarders outside Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the typography of these spaces that facilitate skateboarding. Similarly, the homeless sleep on benches since they’re akin to beds. When these spaces are made more hostile, the problem doesn’t disappear, but is usually transplanted elsewhere in the city.

Utility, Inclusion and Comfort

Hostile architecture is more than just a question of aesthetics due to how extensive its reach can be. Although proponents are adamant on seeing the style as more “defensive,” hostile architecture can act against its intended purposes. Hostile architecture becomes counter-productive when cities haphazardly decide for or against urban policy without peeling back the nuances of a group or social phenomenon in cities. It prevents individuals from accessing public space, which they are allegedly entitled to, and also restricts social behavior to a certain framework. In this sense, hostile architecture not only affects urban spatiality, but also the social fabric of cities and how different groups may or may not be able to interact outside these hostile spaces.

As De Fine Licht demonstrates, the hostility in urban design is not absolute, since arguably barring a group of people or activity may reflect positively on another group. Nonetheless, understanding what hostility in urban design is attempting to achieve is key to understanding its implications on cities. Rationalizing the urge to remove or evict a certain people and their behavior in society is as important. Thus, hostile architecture does not only implicate spatiality, but also informs social interaction among different groups. Rather than making cities more inclusive and accommodating, hostile architecture has potential to prevent that.