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Hostile takeover: Who is welcome in our public spaces?

Bars on benches in Bournemouth did much more than sparking uproar and inspiring rapper Professor Green to remove them. They started a conversation about defensive architecture in our public spaces

It was a simple photo of a bench that changed perceptions of anti-homeless measures.

Stuart Semple’s shot of bars placed on a Bournemouth bench to discourage rough sleepers from bedding down went viral at the end of last month – notching up almost 8,000 shares on Facebook since January 27.

He caught the attention of street-savvy rapper Professor Green, who responded by filming designer Max Murdo detaching the bars by hand – turning the screw on Bournemouth Council and reaching another 150,000 viewers. A 27,000-signature petition followed and the bars, which had been installed following a decision made last summer by a “multi-agency group following many complaints about people lying on them throughout the day”, were removed on February 6.

In a bizarre step, the council responded directly to the “depth of feeling” that the furore had caused by releasing their own video – this one showing the bars being dismantled by workmen in the dead of night, with local councillor Robert Lawton saying in a statement released alongside: “Homelessness prevention and support is a significant and growing issue nationally and the council continues to maintain that as a society we should be aiming far higher than a bench for people to sleep on.”

The affair is the latest in a long line of public outrages at hostile design – the use of architecture that excludes people or has a negative effect on public spaces.

Bournemouth is by no means an isolated case – a Bristol salon installed sprinklers to stop people sleeping outside it earlier this year, while even birds aren’t welcome in the city, with spikes on trees to stop them nesting.

The same measures have also been a thorny issue in London, Manchester and Leeds in recent years as well as across the pond in Chicago alongside a current row about bike racks blocking spaces in Seattle.

But artist Stuart is keen use the victory to transform the public perception of how designs are used inclusively. He invited locals to his Love Bench event, encouraging the local community to turn the seats into art. His latest venture is new website hostiledesign.org, inviting followers to send in examples they come across. The site is even selling police tape-style ‘Design Crime’ stickers to mark the worst offenders.

“It is amazing that the council have removed the bars but I have launched Hostile Designs to raise awareness in a way that might result in shifting perspectives,” says Stuart.

“It’s interesting that it has started a proper debate about homelessness and what you can do around the edges of that like we have done with Bournemouth.

“I feel like the council have been getting away with it, while a lot of the general public don’t notice. You have to get used to seeing where you live from a new perspective. When people can see it, they are outraged but they need to see that it is all around us and isn’t always obvious.”

The resistance pushing back against #hostiledesigns has been simmering for a while. Mike Davis’ 1990 influential book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles targeted a destruction of public spaces while The Urban Environment Research Network launched an Instagram campaign using that hashtag nearly two years ago.

The message is that while visible anti-homeless deterrents may spark outrage from time to time, public spaces continually feature more hidden methods of excluding that are built in.

Professor of architecture and urban culture at the University College London Iain Borden identifies the Camden bench, ‘mosquito’ sound devices, locks on public refuse bins and skate stoppers as measures that have become increasingly prevalent in the last 25 years.

Camden bench
Camden_bench_drop-in
The Camden bench is designed to prevent lying down, graffiti and skateboard tricks

“There are examples from the early 1900s but I would say that exclusion of the youth and homeless population has been increasing since about 1990 and you often don’t notice them,” he says.

“The Camden bench is a good example: it can be visually appealing but you can’t lie on it because of its shape, skateboarders can’t grind their boards on it and it is treated in a substance to repel graffiti too. Most people won’t notice the real reason behind it.

“I’m not sure what I find more offensive – the hidden agenda or the addition, like spikes. It is a bit like adding a swear word into a polite conversation versus saying something polite that has another nastier meaning.

“We have seen more and more of this stuff and I for one would like to see less and less.”

Stuart Temple Love Bench Bournemouth
Stuart-Semple-Love-Bench
Stuart Semple (centre left, with sunglasses) invited the local community to decorate the benches with his Love Bench event

To cut down on the hostile designs growing into public spaces, Stuart is keen to open the eyes of urban planners and city designers as well as those with the chequebooks.

“I create art all over the world to make public spaces a bit happier and more inclusive,” says Stuart, who is currently tackling hostile designs in the US city of Denver.

“It is interesting how human this debate has become – it started off as an architectural debate and has ended with people talking on the streets about how we treat others.

“I think that there needs to be joined-up thinking not just from councils and the government but also experts, rough sleepers and others to think about how we want our public space to be. It’s a call to action.”

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