Architecture is not neutral, designed forms and urban systems are embedded into larger societal trends and values. Architecture provides users with a sense of place, it protects and can inspire social and economic growth. Architecture, can also be restrictive, purposely uncomfortable and exclude from the public sphere certain social groups, condemn or prevent some behaviours. This can be said of the recent ‘War on Sitting’ being fought by many cities worldwide. Public benches are being replaced by leaning support rails, bike racks and spikes on ledges to deter loiterers and preying opportunists and more specifically - the homeless. This begs the question - Are these new urban practices designed to protect the urban population or further isolate it?
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of nddaily
War on Sitting or Anti-Homeless?
Cities all over the world have upgraded their public transportation stations with a new style of benches - leaning 'benches' or rather wooden or metallic rails set at the height of an average person’s rear end. The rail is designed to be comfortable enough to allow passengers to take some weight off their feet while waiting for transportation but not comfortable enough for them to set up camp.
This type of street furniture is subtly or blatantly restrictive. Another good example is the segmented bench - although they have arm rests, they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in a position other than upright. This is not failed design as it is very successful in its aims to deter homeless people from permanently occupying these spaces. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as “hostile architecture.”
Image courtesy of New York City Department of Transportation
Many cities and communities are taking away benches for fear of illegal or undesirable behavior. Among these are New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and London to name a few - the public has not taken kindly to the change, calling it hostile and anti-homeless. New Yorkers took to twitter to voice their concerns on these new 'benches'.
In an email to CityLab, New York City’s MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz called the leaning supports “the result of a review of best practices in transit systems around the world.” He then argued that they take up less space than benches and serve as another option for transit riders. “They didn’t replace traditional seating in the station,” he wrote; “they supplement it.”
Other measures cities have taken to deter long term occupation of public furniture include segmented benches, spikes on ledges and niches that would discourage people from lying down and skating.
As seen below - humans will always find a way to bypass these strategies or respond to these changes by municipality with pointed protests against what they deem anti-homeless, hostile measures. There have been reports of London’s citizens vandalizing anti-homeless public furniture in a bid to send a message to authorities, however in vain as these features are routinely maintained and re-installed. Below shows a protest campaign by a group of London activists who set out to undermine anti-homeless spikes, which prevent people sleeping in public and private spaces.
Video: Courtesy of The Guardian
The art community has also responded. Pictured below is a body of work by artist Sarah Ross entitled “Archisuit” which consists of an edition of comfortable leisure wear suits made for specific architectural structures in Los Angeles. The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them. A thought provoking commentary on restrictive or ‘hostile’ architecture.
Is the ‘War on Sitting" Helping or Hurting Communities?
One could argue that people that such urban features are simply responding to overpopulation and trying to mitigate the potential for crime and unwanted harassment from vagrants and deviant loiterers, however does this fix homelessness and how does this affect communities?
St. Petersburg Florida, which is known to have the highest concentration of homeless people in the US is another city that has done away with the standard public benches, however it seems to not have solved the homeless situation. G.W. Rolle, a St. Pete resident who sits on the board at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in conversation with CityLab expressed how the removing of the city’s infamous green benches has done a disservice to the community and how if they were to be brought back “more people would walk, more people would go downtown, more of the elderly would come out of their buildings, if they had somewhere to sit.”
His observations are echoed by New York based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces who agrees that removing benches not only deters the homeless but also deters positive activity and sends a message of fear of specific groups. They believe the most effective way to deal with ‘undesirable’ activity is to make public spaces friendlier for everyone else.
Image courtesy of Stock Snap
It is worth noting that in a bid to prevent squatting by the homeless, illegal activity and loitering, the removing of benches excludes a whole portion of urban society- the elderly and the disabled, to name a few. According to the World Health Organization’s Global Age-friendly Cities Guide- the access to seating areas is necessary for elderly population. Without seating areas the elderly and the general overworked urban population will have nowhere to momentarily rest their burdens. It also affects the communal/social aspect that public seating brings - for better urban health one factor is creating a sense of community. By designing restrictive, non-inclusive features built to isolate a certain demographic - the homeless, due to poor governance sends a negative message about who is deemed important. Removing homeless prone features like benches and installing threatening spikes only concentrates homeless people and deviants in another area, which in no way solves the problem.
Homelessness is without a doubt a complex, persistent and pervasive problem, and solutions are neither simple nor easy. However on the issue of the design and policy of public spaces, it is important to keep a view of what values guide our decision making, and what alternative values may also warrant consideration.