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Exploring Hostile Design

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Hostility can be as subtle as a whisper.

The first in a series of discussions “Loud and Clear: The Impact of Whispers from Hostile Design” activated an eclectic group of 18 professionals on how design, policy, and programs can both intentionally and unintentionally harm and discriminate against certain groups of people. The discussion started with a brief presentation into local and global examples of hostile design, along with a historical context of hostile policies.

Arm bars on a bench in downtown prohibit sleeping in public.
Where is the line between security, art, and hostile design and when have we gone too far?

Clear illustrations where hostile design discourages sleeping can be seen in local parks and public spaces through arm bars on benches. Subtlety the ambassador program in Downtown Fort Worth provides tourists with information on where to go. However, it is also the primary force to remove homeless individuals from downtown and redirect them to services. Other examples include the refusal of amenities such as parking to local businesses in the West 7th District or grinding bumps on handrails used to discourage skateboards in the Water Gardens.  Where is the line between security, art, and hostile design and when have we gone too far? 

Fort Worth Ambassador Program. A small security force that redirects the homeless population

As the population grows, jobs decline, and affordable housing erodes, a rise in homelessness is inevitable without adequate support systems. When affordable housing is unreliable and limited, the homeless population utilizes public spaces for shelter.  However, is this something that decreases public safety? How do we both serve the most vulnerable while promoting safe and economically viable areas? Are all the new developments or services worth the trade off, considering the increased price for these projects often results in gentrification? Rebounding between these topics we landed on two questions; what is a good equitable baseline for economic development and social inclusion, and how do we design environments for a broader spectrum of living?

Bumps on handrails to prevent skateboard grinding in the Water Gardens.

Concentration of resources, particularly housing and social services generated discussions on potential issues of access and availability, especially when considering the lack of personal transportation and public transit. Additionally, the quality of housing was discussed, as some of the units available to low income and homeless have surpassed their usable life. Looking into both safety and aesthetics, how should we determine the metrics of a “quality building” and when it should be torn down? How do we guarantee its replacement and that it will still serve the population most in need? Should there be a metric for social impact in lieu of, or alongside economic development for new buildings and spaces? Since these developments are primarily funded by wealthier investors is it wrong that these projects are primarily designed for wealthier patrons? If not, then how do we address? 

Bias brings a unique perspective. How do we factor in personal bias especially as it pertains to social equity? How does this affect the design and ultimately the access to a community? Considering culture and lifestyle, we discussed how porches could be a vessel to making a community more inviting, but is given that most of our day to day activities are accessed using an car, are porches effective at achieving this? What other changes would need to be taken and does the design of neighborhoods reflect the desires of a modern and diverse society?  

Taking a shift from the built environment, we landed on literacy, primarily as it related to our marketability to larger corporations. With a student majority struggling to read effectively at 3rd grade, is it affecting our city’s ability to attract and retain talent and companies that could help stimulate the economy? Are tax abatement's to large corporations, particularly corporations looking to relocate, worth what we gain or lose?  Our discussion rebounded on this and the potential benefits such a corporation could bring in terms of image, number of jobs, future startups, or secondary businesses migrations. How do we guarantee the community members benefit most from these decisions?

Redirecting the conversation back to homelessness, we gravitated as group on the realization of homelessness affecting students at a local community college. Discovering that there is an increased presence of homelessness at higher education institutions, we learned that students are having to use college funding to pay for basic amenities. The question becomes then, is this a problem we are recognizing or taking seriously enough? If these students are our future, how can they succeed when their day-to-day conditions are unpredictable and not conducive for education? Considering homeless extends to K-12 students we discussed how we can effectively tailor change to improve these conditions and set a stable foundation for future students. 

Concluding, we discussed how we have become really good at fixing the problems on the other side of the planet, but not so much in our own backyard, and if we truly aim to effect change then the social system has to change. If we cannot give everything to everyone and set a stable foundation, then what do we do? Is it our obligation as humans to give back and care for one another? We carry these thoughts as we reflect on our discussion and what key next steps we should take in creating an inclusive and creative future.

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