5 ways anti-homeless architecture is used to exclude people from public spaces

Benches, spikes and potted plants are all used as anti-homeless architecture to make public spaces hostile for some of society’s most vulnerable people

It can be subtle, it can be difficult to spot, but anti-homeless architecture is all around us, excluding some of society’s most marginalised groups from our public spaces.

Whether it be benches that stop rough sleepers from lying down or spikes placed in doorways, hostile architecture can take many forms but has become a hidden fixture of cities and towns across the UK.

Here’s how to spot anti-homeless architecture and how to raise the alarm to make public spaces the inclusive and welcome spots they should be.

What is anti-homeless architecture?

There are many names for anti-homeless architecture. Defensive architecture, hostile designs or exclusionary design – all essentially mean the same thing.

It stems from using architecture to tackle potential social issues or to stop people from using a certain space in a town or city. 

Most examples are physical things – bollards to block cars from entering pedestrian areas are one less hostile example. But they don’t have to be physical. Some examples include ‘mosquito’ devices which emit a sound adults can’t hear but children and young people can in order to prevent them from loitering.

anti-homeless architecture
These benches, snapped outside the Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand in 2014, are angled and have dividers to make them uncomfortable to lie on. Image: Alan Stanton / Flickr

Rowland Atkinson, the chair of inclusive societies at the University of Sheffield, has researched the impact of hostile architecture on vulnerable populations.

He told the Big Issue many hostile designs may not appear to be exclusionary at first glance but can have darker purposes.

Atkinson said: “There has been this co-opting of street furniture design and other techniques to find ways to apparently manage social problems and issues in the street in a way that appears to be benign but have potentially more aggressive impacts on more vulnerable populations.”

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Not all hostile designs are created intentionally and in some cases they can serve a positive function, Atkinson conceded.

He gave the examples of adding studs to street furniture or low-level walls to stop skateboarders grinding or to offer people a space to sit or eat where they can maintain personal space.

“The idea of design then becomes translated into production standards and templates which just simply get repeated,” Atkinson added. “It’s not like those manufacturers are thinking ‘we do it this way to exclude homeless people’. I think they would be kind of horrified by that.

“The emergent outcome of trying to make places safer has been to create more anti-social spaces.”

How does hostile architecture affect homeless people? 

As one of the most marginalised groups in society, people who experience street homelessness are often directly targeted by some of the most egregious examples of hostile designs.

Spikes on the floor in spaces outside shops and bars on benches to prevent people lying down are some of the most obvious instances in which people with nowhere else to go are excluded from public spaces.

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Twitter account @hostiledesign chronicles anti-homeless architecture from all over the world and has attracted 100,000 followers since launching in July. The person behind the account, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Big Issue the existence of the designs speaks to how we view the less fortunate in society.  

“The hostility toward the homeless impacts not only them but the disabled, elderly, wheelchair users, visually impaired, etc,” they said. “We have such disdain for them existing in our spaces that we’re willing to make it worse for everyone instead of coming up with solutions.”

What are examples of anti-homeless architecture?

1. Benches

An example of an “anti-homeless bench” in London. Image: Matt Brown (CC BY 2.0)

Hostile designs among benches are so ubiquitous that they are pretty much ever-present now. Whether it be curved benches or seating divided by armrests, there are no shortage of crafty ways to prevent people from lying on benches to rest or sleep.

The Camden bench, commissioned by the London local authority in 2012, is one of the most enduring examples of a hostile design, featuring angled surfaces that dissuade any use of the street furniture other than for sitting. 

Atkinson said: “The subdivided partitioned bench is the standard design more or less now, that is essentially what you will see wheeled out.” 

2. Rocky pavements

anti-homeless architecture
Spiky, uneven ground makes it uncomfortable for people to sit down. Image: Cory Doctorow Flickr

If you see an uneven pavement with rocks jutting out of the ground, chances are it could be to stop people sitting or loitering.

This is most common in alcoves and small spaces outside shops or other buildings to prevent people from using the space.

3. Street spikes

anti-homeless architecture
Whether on the ground or on surfaces, spikes are an aggressive way of deterring people from sitting. Image: Kent Williams / Flickr

It’s a similar story for spikes on the street. Perhaps the most outwardly aggressive form of anti-homeless architecture, these are also often found outside shops to ward off rough sleepers.

The spikes are also possibly the form of hostile design most likely to spark complaints.

“The vulnerability of people is increased when they cannot find somewhere safe in, say, a back alley that is fully sealed up, or cannot find a temporary resting space because there are spikes or other strategies to keep you out of those places,” said Atkinson.

“It’s possible for us apparently as a community to send out the signals to the most excluded groups amongst us that they’re not welcome or going to be accommodated even when they’re in the most desperate situations.”

And spikes on windowsills and walls might not just be to keep the birds away – they may also be a tactic to stop people sitting or to prevent skateboarders from grinding on them.

If you see spikes on a surface at waist level, chances are it’s a hostile design.

4. Street dividers

These planters installed in Toronto sparked a backlash after forcing out a man who slept under the shelter. Signs pinned to pillars state: “Between these pillars… Somebody lived here”. Image: Enoch Leung (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Large planters on pavements might not just be there to make the place greener.

They are also used to fill space where people can sit or as roadblocks to keep out skateboarders, cyclists and others.

5. Boulders and other objects blocking spaces

If planters can mask their hostility behind turning the place green, boulders and other rocks can achieve the same objective in a much more grey fashion, whether it be on pavements, under bridges or in other sleeping spots.

anti-homeless architecture
The placement of these boulders in Los Angeles’ Koreatown led to accusations they were installed to prevent people experiencing homelessness from setting up camp. Image: Joe Linton / Streetsblog

How do you fight anti-homeless architecture?

Some opponents of anti-homeless architecture have resorted to direct action, including covering up floor spikes with concrete or mattresses, but be aware that some actions may result in a criminal charge or being sued by the property owner.

Anything that damages property can be classed as criminal damage and that includes fly posting, like putting up stickers or posters. Fly tipping, defined as illegally dumping waste, is also a criminal offence and could be applied to mattresses or cushions left out.

That hasn’t stopped some people though.

Musician Professor Green filmed designer Max McMurdo dismantling bars on a bench in Bournemouth in 2018 after the local council sparked uproar when it installed them.

Others have drawn attention to the offending design to shame those responsible. Artist Stuart Semple, who was behind the campaign to remove the Bournemouth bench bars, sells free stickers on his website to allow people to highlight hostile architecture.

Raising awareness and campaigning is always an alternative that avoids potential legal action, so you can shout about hostile architecture in the local press or on social media, potentially even sending your find to @hostiledesign to be included in their collection.

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