Try sitting on this ferry bench. It’s called ‘hostile architecture’ and meant to deter the homeless. (Commentary)


The use of hostile architecture, especially in New York City, has sky-rocketed over the past decade, and has received heavy criticism for the way in which it impacts public spaces.

The goal of this type of structural design is to deter people from using a public space in a certain way (or sometimes from using it at all), and it often achieves this by adding sharp edges or uncomfortable ridges and slopes to things such as railings, benches, or even open patches of concrete.

The ironic issue with this design is that it makes public spaces more difficult for the public to use.  Specifically, a major problem with hostile architecture is that it disproportionately impacts poor and homeless people.

Hostile architecture has been around for centuries, and the practice is not all malignant.  From castle walls and anti-urination mounds in the medieval era, to car blocks and terrorist-proof installations, not all hostile architecture is designed to dissuade the public from using a space.  Rather, some designs aim to make the space better for the public to use. Installations like metal knobs on wooden railings or benches can keep people from activities like skateboarding, which may not only be dangerous in the public space, but may also damage the railing,

However, in what main way do railing knobs and anti-terrorist installations differ from leaning benches and anti-homeless spikes? The members of the society most affected, and the way they are affected.  The former two examples deter actions of those who are looking to misuse the public space, while the latter two largely ensure that public spaces are not populated by the most undesirable (and vulnerable) members of a society.

It seeks to make the homeless less visible (and then by default make and area more palatable), without attempting to address why those individuals are seen are undesirable or help them to elevate their position. Not only is it not solving the problem, but it visually represents and furthers anti-homeless sentiment in American culture. 

Architect James Furzer, interviewed by CNN, discusses how degrading and dehumanizing it is for people already who are struggling to have to be stared at all day, and then be pushed out of the spaces they are using for survival without being given a better option.

America’s specific way of viewing those in poverty assists in generating the response we have to dealing with homelessness. The historical view in America is that justice and fairness are inherent in the free, individualistic, capitalist system.  Additionally, the largely Christian population was further led by the Church to believe that individuals were responsible for their own fates, and wealth was a form of reward for being godly and moral.  So, poverty was seen as a result of a lack of work ethic, as well as some kind of moral or religious shortcoming.

Many individuals and organizations have realized the issues with the way America has historically addressed these problems.  Besides simply advocating against hostile architecture, many are understanding that it is large cultural reform that needs to change in the way homelessness is addressed.

Homeless aid and advocacy organizations in NYC, such as Coalition for the Homeless, not only provide charitable aid to the homeless, but also work to educate people and lawmakers about better ways to actually help solve the issue. If we want our money be used effectively, money going towards these installations needs to be reallocated to systems that have proven to help lower rates of homelessness or increase the quality and dignity of living for those who are homeless.  These would be things like food and shelter organizations, rehabilitation programs, job-finding programs, and mental health organizations.

Hostile architecture, especially in its current urban iteration, does more harm than good to communities by alienating the homeless population from society, encouraging anti-homeless sentiment, and making public spaces feel unwelcoming.  Its use has been propagated by a historical and cultural misunderstanding about the causes and situations surrounding poverty and homelessness, and it exploits the vulnerability of some of the most misfortunate of a society.

 Individuals, organizations, and the government need to recognize the harm these installations do, and advocate for a more humane and more effective allocation of funds to help the homeless live better lives rather than pushing them further out of society.

(Kaelin Wolf, originally from Pennsylvania (I live on the Appalachian mountains near Harrisburg) is currently a senior at Wagner College, living on Staten Island for the four years. She is majoring in biopsychology with hopes of going to medical school. This commentary is part of a project in her Social Work class.)



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