Hostile architecture: A city consumed

The nightmare on Pitt Street

Hostile architecture Photography by Anh Nguyen

At some bus stops around Sydney, you don’t sit — you lean. 

My friend Lily and I were waiting for a bus at Railway Square. Surrounding us were bodies — heavy and tired, stained in sleep. Some with a coffee in hand, some on their phones. But most of all, they were all on their feet, either leaning or standing. We ourselves were crouched atop the glacial metal bars and transparent glass that made a temporary shelter for the bus stop. Hardly comfortable. It was morning and we were all tired — but nobody was sitting. 

It was then that I realised I had seen this all before. Around the platforms at Town Hall and Central Station, if you don’t manage to snatch one of the few benches, you are then left to either stand or to lean on one of those strange, lifeless wooden bars — awkwardly situated a bit too close to the approaching form of transport. They were practically useless, as well as uncomfortable. Much like the bars that Lily and I were slanting our bodies over at that very moment. 

Why would anybody design something so useless? I posed this question aloud, when Lily’s response made me realise that they were anything but.

“I think they are forms of defensive architecture,” she said to me. 

Ever since, I haven’t stopped noticing them.

‘Hostile’ or ‘defensive’ architecture describes the design of various public structures that renders them unusable for certain purposes or groups. They are designed in an inconspicuous way to prevent ‘undesired’ behaviours from being seen in urban spaces. The top-ranking menaces are often seen as homelessness and pesky skateboarders. 

The most prominent examples of hostile architecture are benches and seats that are designed to be impractical for any purpose other than sitting. A walk around USyd will expose you to an array of cases — ranging from benches with undulant platforms around the Civil Engineering building, to those with protruding pegs next to the new Administration block. 

Other examples include plants in sheltered spaces, blockades placed on building corners that would otherwise shield from wind (check out the Sports & Aquatic Centre), the round terror blocks on Eastern Avenue, and the metal skate stoppers all over the handrails of ABS.

Walk out further into the city, and you’ll see benches with metal handrails placed in the middle. Though varying in intensity, these seat designs are masters of their craft in preventing bodies from lying down, as well as stopping the path of skateboarders. 

There are also other commonplace architectural features in our cities that double as more subtle forms of environmental social control. Ultraviolet lights are installed in public toilets to forfend intravenous drug users, CCTV cameras are scattered through urban centres, and most recently, blue LED lights for suicide prevention at train stations in Tokyo. 

However, what categorises these designs as ‘hostile’ is that their function is to selectively and directly exclude an unwanted group. In the case of the designs seen in Sydney, their most common purpose is to discourage rough sleeping and prevent the space from becoming a permanent shelter. In this city, the most significant unwanted group are the homeless. 

So how, then, does a city like Sydney become so hostile?  How did our architecture come to express such an antagonistic attitude towards public displays of homelessness and poverty? To understand our current reality, we have to first trace back to why such attitudes exist. 

The O in homeless stands for ‘Other’ 

Homelessness has had a long history of being a signifier of ‘Otherness’. Those living this way have long been exposed to exclusion and disciplinary treatment. Bearing this identity often means living in unpredictable, and often unsafe, circumstances. 

The list of aims of the City of Sydney’s Homelessness Unit notes objectives to “prevent people from becoming entrenched in homelessness in the inner-city” and to “enact a compassionate and proactive approach to the management of public space.” This points to a telling perception of displays of homelessness as either a threatening or unwanted part of our urban spaces. As Sociologist Robert Park wrote, “In making the city we make ourselves.” When our city is covered in anxious, inhospitable objects that aim to displace people, what does it say about our collective self-conception?

Privatised spaces for paying people

The privatisation of space is another contributing factor to the preponderance of hostile architecture. In an increasingly privatised urban environment, ‘security’ is perceived according to an idealised vision of which groups a city should serve and contain. In Australia, the mass privatisation of traditional public spaces are as ubiquitous as ibises in bins. It wasn’t too long ago that the Sydney Opera House projected onto its sails a gargantuan, controversial advertisement for Racing NSW. Dr Steven Flusty, who documented the commodification and rise of hostile spaces in Los Angeles, noted that the intrusion of corporations into urban environments helps create a new kind of public space, where access depends on a person’s apparent ability to pay. In these spaces, exclusivity is needed to ensure that nothing unpredictable disrupts the flow of capital. People are separated into groups of who can pay and who cannot. This is termed a process of “urban securitisation” where the definition of what constitutes a “potential threat” now extends to people who seemingly lack the capacity to buy. 

Urban spaces are also increasingly constructed according to an idealised public, in order to facilitate and encourage ‘proper’ identities and behaviours. A way of attracting ‘the right kind’ of people is to make them do ‘the right thing.’ Take the seats in Pitt Street Mall as an example. Instead of a long bench, they are tiny squares, separated with strange rests that seemingly turns one away from the other. This makes it a strenuous task to even try to talk to the person next to you, much less relax and stay there for some time. The purpose here is to push people not to congregate, but instead to shop. Those who are meant to be there are kept on their feet; those who aren’t are kept out altogether. 

A hostile neighbourhood is a safe one

Hostile architecture also serves as a symbolic means of thwarting urban anxieties. Since the late 1970s, there has been a process of urban consolidation in Sydney — building up existing urban spaces rather than expanding to new areas. Whilst there is still a push for jobs to be in more expedient locations, the process is slow — causing different populations to be simultaneously pulled away from these locations and into the CBD. The State Government can therefore slow down the expansion of the city, and hence, reduce the costs of infrastructure. The result is a rising, culturally diverse population in a limited area. 

The co-mingling of distinct social groups in a condensed area can create a cloud of anxiety. With diversity comes urban paranoia. People become concerned with crime rates and, in turn, homelessness. When people don’t trust their neighbours, defensive architecture can be used as a tool for easing these fears and regulating the ‘Other’.

It is interesting to trace this history back to the roots of defensive urban design itself. Evolving from Oscar Newman’s 1973 work Defensible Space, the philosophy of these forms of architecture is to be designed not only to prevent crime itself, but also the perception of crime. Here, hostile spaces serve more as a means to ease anxiety — creating a purchased, symbolic sense of safety in a concrete jungle replete with globalisation and discrimination.

The consequences of ignorance

“When you’re designed against, you know it,” explains Ocean Howell, a former professional skateboarder and assistant professor at the University of Oregon. “Other people might not see it, but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public”. 

He’s right. The subtlety of many designs, along with our tendency to simply accept our environment, have caused these spaces to become something that we rarely notice in our everyday lives. It has also made defensive architecture a powerful tool of urban control that has insidious ramifications for how we understand our community. 

2017 saw the death of Tent City. The homeless encampment/community in Martin Place was forcibly removed, the reason being that they had left “unacceptable impacts on the public.” These “impacts” mostly involve making visible the systemic issue of homelessness and housing affordability that encumbered the idealised visions and aesthetics of the city. An interesting observation, though, is that just months earlier, the NSW Government revealed designs for two new towers to be built for the future Martin Place Metro Station. The new metro precinct will include an assemblage of shops, restaurants, and offices that expands its connection to Hunter, Elizabeth and Castlereagh Streets. Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s comments on the project emphasised the city’s “truly global” capabilities and the fact that “developments like this continue to elevate our status”. It is hard not to see the link in our city planning between the displacement of homelessness visibility and the prioritisation of corporate interests by government elites. 

In 2014, when anti-homelessness spikes in London were facing a series of intense contestations from the public, Boris Johnson’s first remarks when questioned about them was that “they were not a good look.” 

If these are the first reactions of politicians to the effects of hostile architecture, what does it tell us about the rights of homeless people versus the maintenance of a city’s aesthetics and globalising processes? These examples are a sombre indication of homelessness’s low position on the hierarchy of socio-political importance — something the implementation of hostile architecture has been informing us of all along. 

If not here then where?

As of late August 2019, Sydney’s temporary accommodation for the homeless has supposedly reached a ‘crisis point’. Data indicates that the number of people sleeping rough has dropped 9% compared to August 2018. Many more beds are being used in crisis and temporary housing, increasing by 20% – providing now just 38 beds short of capacity.

Despite the decrease of rough sleepers being a positive sign of the successful work of outreach teams, one cannot help but also draw a link between this and the increase in discriminatory spaces in our city centres. Where makeshift housing is a temporary solution to a systemic crisis, the implementation of hostile architecture in urban spaces can hardly be deemed as any solution at all.  

The structural exclusion of rough sleepers aims to simply displace them from view instead of offering stable solutions to confront the issue systematically. The focus is shifted away from the structural and systemic drivers of socio-economic inequality, and redirected towards what are deemed as undesired behaviours at street-level. As observed by Dr James Petty from the University of Melbourne, there is “an ossification of surface over substance, clean appearance over informed or effective policy.”

Data from the ABS 2016 census showed an increase in homelessness of 13.7% in Australia, with NSW accounting for more than 73% of this national increase. It seems that hostile architecture and measures like the criminalisation of begging in Melbourne are ineffective ways by which we should be approaching the crisis that pervades the people that makes up our cities. 

Regardless, there are potential solutions to provide hospitality to our most vulnerable people. In Brisbane, a trial is being undertaken by the country’s largest car park operator, Secure Parking, for a car park to be turned into a pop-up shelter for the homeless. It’s been noted that if the trial goes to plan, the organisation hopes to expand the project out into Melbourne and Sydney within the next 12 months. 

Though a good solution, it poses the question: why must private institutions provide these services when the provision of public housing should be the work of our governments? It is also a risk to entrust such a project to a private organisation that also relies on corporate help, when corporations have such a large role in the displacement of homeless people in the first place.

It’s like a game of ‘once you see it’. Once noticed, the effects of defensive urban designs and the root causes become clear to you in chilling layers of inequity. I can no longer see, nor appreciate, the aesthetics of the plants under the City Road footbridge in the same way. Nor am I able to sit on a public bench without acknowledging the privilege that I am granted in such spaces. But this is nothing compared to the insidious effects they have on a society’s most vulnerable people. When cities are constructed for the benefit of those who can adhere to an idealised vision of an unblemished cityscape, the definition of urban diversity narrows, and so does our sense of morality. 

Hostile architecture not only points to the problem of structural discrimination and systemic injustice, but also exposes the incidental complacency, ignorance and prejudice that hides beneath our social preconceptions and attitudes. Our cities need more inclusive spaces, and for those in power to directly address social inequalities rather than simply sweeping them out of sight. 

Urban dwellers need to resist the pleasantries of ignorance. At the end of the day, it is all about taking the first step. An acknowledgement that all spaces are equal, but some are more equal than others. 

Look around. 

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