Hostile Architecture: Keeping the Public Out of Public Spaces

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Robison Wells
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We’ve all seen it, though we may not have realized what we’re looking at: there are fixtures all over a city that are designed to keep people from being comfortable. And there’s a movement underway to return these public spaces to the public.

The most obvious examples of intrusive public fixtures are the knobs that run along bannisters—sometimes small rivets, sometimes large discs, these knobs are designed to keep people from either sliding down the bannister, or skateboarding across it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that this is in the public good. After all, if someone is injured in a public (or private) space they can easily sue and may win millions of taxpayer dollars. Similarly, there are anti-skateboarding knobs on horizontal railings, concrete steps, and benches. These have been around for as long as skateboards have been damaging infrastructure (or as long as skateboarders loitering has been considered a nuisance.)

But these anti-public fixtures are popping up more and more often, especially in large urban centers. Architects are designing buildings, parks, and other public spaces to make loitering, playing, and sometimes just existing, hard to do.

Take the park bench. In many major cities, benches have installed armrests, or other sectioning barriers to prevent people from laying (and sleeping) on these benches, usually in an attempt to deter the homeless populations from utilizing the space. In one famous example, benches in New York City subways were built to be nearly waist-high and slanted, so that they become benches for leaning, not for sitting.

Manhattan is seeing pushback against these so-called “anti-homeless spikes”, such as rows of jagged, teeth-like metal bars that are laid across the top of brick planter boxes, to simply prevent people from even sitting down. It is estimated that 79,000 homeless people live in New York City.

“We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” said Jon Ritter, an architectural historian and a clinical associate professor at New York University, in the New York Times. But, he says, “What is hostile to some is defensive to others.”

In 2007, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited “devices that inhibit seating” in privately owned public spaces. But a 2017 audit by the city comptroller found that more than half of the spaces failed to comply with the new regulations. To edge around some of these laws, some buildings have taken different strategies: one Fifth Avenue tower replaced a bench with a kiosk.

“The irony that some public spaces actively discourage public use should not be lost on anyone,” said Jerold Kayden, Harvard professor of urban planning and design.

On one East 47th Street plaza, wooden benches were installed in accordance with the ordinance, but had plaques installed saying “No Loitering.”

“At what point am I loitering?” Mia Wagner, a passerby, said. “It makes me think twice about whether or not to sit, how long can I sit, and do I have to buy something so that I’m a valid squatter?”

The plaza removed the signs in 2019, but kept metal bars on the benches to deter skateboarding.

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