On Hostile Architecture, Public Space, and the Art of Exclusion
Updated: May 1
Hostile architecture (also often referred to as “defensive architecture” or “exclusionary architecture”) involves the alterations of public space with the express purpose of excluding certain demographics, namely the homeless (McFadden, 2020). Such architecture has often been employed by the société de transport de Montréal (STM) around Montréal and in various metro stations, with increased usage since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (Addison, n.d.).
Recent examples include slanted wooden coverings placed over benches at the
Bonaventure metro station in mid-February, preventing rest for many unhoused individuals who had previously used that location as a place of refuge, allowing them to escape the cold and rest comfortably. Similarly, armrests were added to benches at Viau metro station, thus separating the benches into segments and preventing homeless people from lying there. These changes to public space initiated by the STM took place in metro stations that often served as a hub for unhoused individuals while other, more popular metro stations remain relatively unchanged, thus hinting to anti-homeless intentions behind these recent design changes. However, the STM took to social media to defend these actions by using the pandemic and social distancing precautions as an excuse for the use of such hostile designs.
Hostile design structures exist in varying forms, from the more obvious “anti-homeless spikes” on ledges to prevent individuals from resting there, to more discrete designs such as slanted benches which make sleeping difficult. In each case, the design makes the area an uncomfortable place to spend a significant amount of time. To the average person who does not spend a great deal of time in these locations, such designs often go unnoticed. However, for the unhoused person who requires public spaces such as bus stop benches and window ledges for rest and shelter, such designs are devastating.
While the STM claims that these measures are to uphold COVID-19 health precautions by preventing all people, rich or poor, from resting there, thus not explicitly targeting the homeless. It is not difficult to see that this is not true.
While all people may be prevented from sleeping on metro benches, only those with nowhere else to sleep are harmed by these hostile designs, thus indirectly discriminating against the most vulnerable and marginalized people in Montréal.
This is particularly detrimental during the COVID-19 pandemic, as homeless shelters are forced to minimize their capacity, leaving many individuals without sanctuary (Addison, n.d.).
Furthermore, these design structures represent discrete acts of violence that epitomize the pervasive inclination to exclude those deemed undesirable.
from public space.
Indeed, hostile design structures are a form of crime control (Lynch, 2021) based in Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) highly contested “broken windows” theory, which purports that crime is more likely to occur in areas that are unkempt and thus likely to be without
surveillance. This theory can be summarized with this analogy: a building with broken windows inadvertently welcomes trespassing; thereby, the theory suggests that the conjugation of criminals in a given area will normalize criminal behaviour in that area. Thus, defensive architecture is a hostile attempt to keep unwanted behaviour out of the public domain, an attempt that specifically targets the unhoused community and portrays the way in which policymakers view the homeless. That is, they are criminalized and stigmatized.
In recognizing the discrete art of exclusion inherent in the use of hostile architecture, one may begin to question what ‘public space’ really means, and what rights people have to its use.
Are public spaces really open to the free and indiscriminate use by the public, or is the use of public space selective, and only permitted to those deemed socially appropriate?
While laws cannot prevent the dispossessed person from resting on public space, hostile designs do, thus covertly and legally stripping the homeless person from their right to exist in public.
Via the ‘broken windows theory’, hostile architecture subtly controls public behaviour and the use of common space by creating uncomfortable areas to rest, forcing continued movement and promoting consumer behaviours over and above leisure behaviours (Lynch, 2021). The criminalization of homelessness and the desire for perpetual motion in the public sphere stems from the pervasive public-private dichotomy that forms the foundation of social behaviour and the collective understanding of society (Lynch, 2021; Skolnik, 2018). The public-private dichotomy creates a clear distinction between the domestic and the political, such that private matters (such as resting or bathing) ought only to occur in the private (or domestic) sphere of the home, while the public sphere is reserved for public matters (such as work and consumerism). The mixing of the spheres causes discomfort because it is contrary to how society is understood to work. However, those without a home are forced to mix the spheres, and to perform typically private matters, such as sleeping, in public.
The discomfort caused by the blending of the life-spheres manifests as disgust and stigmatization. While private behaviours are not inherently criminal behaviours, their existence in public is criminalized because it is contrary to the norm and disrupts the consumer flow intended of the public realm (Skolnik, 2018). Hostile architecture maintains this flow by preventing rest and other unwanted, private behaviours inherent to homelessness, criminalizing the unhoused person in the process. It is not difficult to see how this is a failed logic (Pelley, 2019). Preventing the unhoused person from resting on a bench does not prevent private-public convergence or combat homelessness, it only ostracizes the individual and forces them out of the consumer public and further into the recesses of society.
Preventing the homeless person from using public space will not end homelessness.
In Montréal, where there is a significant unhoused population, not enough shelters, and extreme temperatures, the STM’s use of hostile architecture in metro stations forces vulnerable unhoused citizens to find shelter outdoors, in precarious and often dangerous situations. It does nothing to solve the major social issue that is homelessness, it simply pushes it aside and ignores it. Out of sight out of mind. But it is not out of mind for those unhoused victims of these hostile designs. Rather, it is a painful and devastating experience to be consistently excluded from the public and punished for not having a home.. As citizens of Montréal, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to stand for such exclusionary tactics and allow the city streets to become increasingly inhospitable, or if we are to instead meet homelessness with compassion and inclusion.
Addison, K. (n.d.). The violence of exclusionary design: How Montrea’s public spaces are designed to police themselves. http://www.mcgilltribune.com/exclusionary-design/
Lynch, E.E. (2021). Laws of perpetual motion: the sensory regulation of mobility in public space. The Senses and Society, 16(1), 102-109. https://doi.org/10.1080/17458927.2020.1763037
McFadden, C. (2020, November 23). 15 examples of ‘anti-homeless’ hostile architecture that you probably never noticed before. https://interestingengineering.com/15-examples-of-anti-homeless-hostile-architecture-that-you-probably-never-noticed-before
Pelley, L. (2019, July 2). How ‘defensive design’ leads to rigid benches, metal spikes, and ‘visual violence’ in modern cities. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/how-defensive-design-leads-to-rigid-benches-metal-spikes-and-visual-violence-in-modern-cities-1.5192333
Skolnik, T. (2018). How and why homeless people are regulated differently. Queen’s Law Journal, 43(2), 297-324. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/39654/1/Skolnik%20-%20How%20%20and%20%20Why%20%20Homeless%20%20People%20%20Are%20%20Regulated%20%20Differently.pdf
Wilson, J.Q. & Kelling, G.L. (1982). Broken windows. The Atlantic Monthly. http://illinois-online.org/krassa/ps410/Readings/Wilson%20and%20Kelling%20Broken%20Windows.pdf