Hostile Architecture

Dear Asian Youth,

Hostile architecture, also known as defensive architecture, is the use of architectural elements in public spaces to influence the behavior of living beings and ensure that individuals only use public spaces for their intended purposes. One common example of hostile architecture is placing spikes on trees to prevent birds from resting on the branches and defecating on the cars below. Spikes such as these are also commonly placed on benches to prevent loitering and skating, and many benches themselves are made on an uncomfortable incline to serve the same purpose. By preventing loitering, hostile architecture discourages drug drops and pushes out the homeless (CNN).

These eyesores, which somewhat resemble medieval torture methods, allow hostility to permeate public spaces. But proponents are quick to argue that the government funds hostile architecture in an effort to keep public places safe and enjoyable for everyone.

While this argument is valid to an extent, it is also important to consider people who are negatively affected by hostile architecture, namely the homeless population. Though I believe people should feel safe in public spaces, placing ugly spikes and curved benches is evidently a short-term solution that does little to solve why so many are forced to seek refuge in public spaces in the first place. This is especially relevant considering that the funds directed towards hostile architecture could be used to improve homeless shelters. Even in cities with funded homeless shelters, many feel safer in public places than in these shelters. In an interview by NPR of David Pirtle, member of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau and the National Coalition for the Homeless, Pirtle states that one of the reasons many refuse to stay in shelters,”is that you hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that they're full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there's bedbugs and body lice. And yeah, unfortunately a lot of those things are true.” While Pirtle makes sure to let NPR know that this isn’t the case for all shelters, he conveys that most simply provide a location for people, many of whom are dealing with various issues, with little regard for their safety and well-being.

As a result, many opponents of hostile architecture point out that the government should focus on solving these issues, to ensure that less people feel the need to resort to staying in public places. This was exemplified in 2019 when Iowa City administrators were criticized for replacing benches with ones that have armrests in the middle to prevent people from being able to sleep on these benches. The new benches cost Iowa City 150,000 dollars and it took even more money to actually replace the benches (The Daily Iowan). Another example is Philadelphia’s Love Park’s 26 million dollar renovation in 2018 that was meant to make the park more accessible and inclusive. But once unveiled, it was clear that the new curved and slotted benches divided by metal bars were made to prevent people in need from sleeping on these benches (INSP). Again, this is a somewhat understandable course of action by the government, as it further ensures the safety of families and small children who wish to enjoy the park. However, 26 million dollars is a sum of money that could have genuinely benefitted local homeless shelters and improved the quality of life for everyone, not just a small group of people.

In March and April of last year, over 22.2 million people were laid off in response to the pandemic, contributing to an alarming rise in homelessness. These current events further reveals the cruelty of hostile architecture. Not only are more individuals facing economic instability, but shelters consist of large groups of people which increases the potential risk of COVID-19. Now, more than ever, is the time for our government to invest in these marginalized communities. Of course, this is a much more difficult solution than the temporary benefits of hostile architecture, and there is an argument to be made for ensuring the safety of public spaces for everyone. But, I don’t believe these more aggressive tactics are fair, as they only promise the safety of certain groups while ostracizing others.

- Lora Kwon

Cover Photo Source: Indesign Live