Illustration of people walking through a city with hostile architecture

Hostile Architecture Is Changing the Way We Travel in Cities

The rise of hostile architecture affects more than just the unhoused population

We’re dedicating our August features to architecture and design. After spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, we’ve never been more ready to check into a dreamy new hoteldiscover hidden architectural gems, or hit the road in luxury. Now, we’re excited to celebrate the shapes and structures that make our world beautiful with an inspiring story of how one city is restoring its most sacred monuments, a look at how historic hotels are prioritizing accessibility, an examination of how architecture could be changing the way we travel in cities, and a rundown of the most architecturally significant buildings in every state.

Walk down your city's street one evening, and you're bound to notice the tell-tale signs of urban design. Whether colorful murals, ultramodern street benches, or string lights emitting a pleasant glow, the objects and their placement around you trigger a sense of feeling. Design isn’t just about the aesthetic vibe of a space, be that a psychedelic astro-cat painted on an old warehouse wall or a graceful stretch of artfully-rusted weathering steel lining a street planter; it’s also how planners and city officials construct the built environment to influence behavior.

Streets that include crosswalks are calming measures used to force cars to slow down, making the neighborhood quieter and safer. Tree-lined streets create shade, help manage rainwater, and improve air quality. With these forms of design, cities can become more welcoming, accessible, and livable. They provide elements that make us want to travel to a city, feel safe in a city, or allow us to enjoy living in a particular neighborhood.

But there are other cases of urban design in which we are often forced to ask tough questions about for whom these cities are being made livable—and who is being purposely excluded.

While many city planners and policymakers think about measures to make cities more comfortable and attractive, the elusive notion of livability has an enemy in the form of hostile architecture. This form of urban design is becoming increasingly popular in cities taking a restrictive or even punitive approach to the growth in the population of homeless citizens. It’s not new, by any means, but it’s become more prevalent alongside the burgeoning wealth inequality in the United States and has risen alongside the skyrocketing housing prices of cities that have become increasingly unaffordable.

Hostile architecture comes in many forms, but its primary goal is to dissuade some sort of specific activity. If pigeons had a trade association, for example, they might bemoan the wiry spikes installed atop fixtures and railings in train stations designed specifically to prevent birds from alighting on them. A more human example of the “hostile-lite” designs might be the steel protrusions installed into the edges of granite fixtures, meant solely to prevent skateboarders from grinding on them.

Many measures, however, go far beyond dissuading a specific skateboard trick and are more geared toward preventing people from using public places for lying down or even sitting. Park benches are often refitted with bars—masquerading as armrests—specifically designed to prevent someone from lying down on them. New York City's MTA has gone so far as to install various spiked surfaces in subway stations, which might otherwise provide a welcome refuge to someone seeking protection from inclement weather.

In some cases, though, the hostility might come from the absence of an expected amenity. As KQED journalist Lina Blanco observed in 2019, “Spikes are obvious, but boulders aren’t. Metal blades are egregious, but classical music blaring outside of an establishment isn't. Restrictive barriers are overt, but the absence of park benches, water fountains, and public restrooms isn't.”

There may be legitimate angles to restricting access to space that may host unsavory activity or may even expose visitors or occupants to safety risks. In Detroit, a large area underneath an overpass of Interstate 94 was recently fenced off; there is no lighting under the overpass, and the area is subjected to a pretty constant haze of diesel fumes and exhaust (Michigan doesn’t have vehicle inspections or emission checks). There are similar cases in which fencing off certain areas might reduce people being hit by cars.

But even the public rhetoric of the practitioners implementing hostile design seems to acknowledge that most of these restrictions are geared toward keeping people out—a certain type of people. Much like the aggressive punishing of “crimes” like jaywalking or loitering end up disproportionately targeting non-white populations, the rise of hostile architecture singles out the unhoused population, making it extremely difficult to be homeless in a city.

Imagine spending a day walking around a new city, only to find limited options where you can sit and rest or even just a place to relax and admire your surroundings.

Anti-homelessness measures often adversely affect non-homeless citizens, indicating that you can’t sit here; you can only sit there. Imagine spending a day walking around a new city, only to find limited options where you can sit and rest or even just a place to relax and admire your surroundings. A lack of water fountains to hydrate oneself while traveling, as well as the absence of public restrooms, can make a city feel downright unwelcoming towards visitors of all kinds.

Design has the power to transform an urban area into a more welcoming and accessible destination. The rise of hostile architecture, however, displays how design can also be used as a harsh and punitive measure, as opposed to a measure to make places more comfortable and livable. So what role does design play in the fight to keep cities equitable?

Grand Rapids-based community organizer Wylynn Tomes says the path begins with providing a modicum of comfort and convenience to homeless citizens living in cities, listening to their needs rather than simply trying to punish or exclude them.

“Get some trash cans out there to start,” Tomes says, referencing the growing trend of trash cans being removed from cities, born out of the hypothesis that trash cans can be magnets for too much trash. "That’s a simple design measure going back to the 'good' design—that influences human behavior and makes cities cleaner. You have to listen to people, and cater to the needs of the people you’re helping. Otherwise, you're just [designing] for yourself."

There is a diversity of policy solutions from all levels of government to address the country's homelessness crisis, like housing vouchers, mental health counseling, and other healthcare services. The current bubble of housing prices—that have seemingly soared higher than Sir Richard Branson’s near-space escapade—are not purely the result of dysfunctional financial markets, but also one of the markets where it’s been hard to build new housing, whether owing to high costs, “NIMBYism,” or a combination of the two. Policy solutions that will make it easier for new housing to be built will be critical in addressing homelessness.

While design may not solve homelessness, the design solutions that cities embrace should make cities safer and more livable—for all. Hostile architecture may act as a deterrent to a certain activity, but it doesn’t improve a city's access or comfort.