In October 2019, newspaper columnist Theodore Decker published an editorial on the pages of the Columbus Dispatch about a renovation project completed near the downtown tower of financial services giant KeyBank, an esteemed Ohio institution. Next to the parking lot, an outdoor structure of two low concrete walls was topped with jagged pieces of flagstone. The sharp edges of these natural stone fragments now stand upright, which means that this is no longer a space where people can sit down to take a break.
Mr. Decker described this renovation as an example of hostile architecture. The property managers wanted to prevent homeless panhandlers from sitting on that structure, and in doing so, they also eliminated the possibility of anyone else sitting there. Big cities such as Columbus are the most likely spots where hostile architecture can be found; other examples include awkward armrests on park benches strategically built so that no one is able to stretch out and take a nap or make them their beds for the night.
Hostile architecture negatively affects homeless populations not only by physically keeping them away from structures but also by creating a harmful stigma. To many homeless individuals, seeing property managers and city planners spending money on the labor and materials to keep them away is a psychological alienation issue they are forced to deal with, and this is in addition to their already disadvantaged position in society.
Property managers and city council members tend to describe hostile architecture as structural improvements; social advocates describe it as paranoid to the extent of being cruel. Homeless populations are often the most affected by hostile architecture, followed by skateboarders and pigeons. Some architects prefer to call this form of design “defensive architecture,” which is a warfare term to describe features intended to keep enemy combatants away from structures.
Architects who do not support hostile design explain that public spaces are meant to be public. Just like city councils make efforts to make their jurisdictions accessible to people who live with disabilities, they should make similar efforts to help disadvantaged communities. Hostile architecture is not even a band-aid solution. Instead, we need to get to the root causes of homelessness to eradicate the symptoms.