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Re-Exploring Hostile Design

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

"When you take the time to know someone or something, perceptions change."

Powerful words shared by Que Glenn, one of the students we have been collaborating with to shine a light on college and youth homelessness. Perceptions of the ideal space can often lead designers to indirectly place elements that discourage certain populations or actions. Hostile architecture can be as subtle as simply not providing a place to sit or installing an arm bar on a public bench, as obvious as a wall or fence to keep people or animals out, or as aggressive as metal studs installed on a guard rail to prohibit skateboarding. These designs can often go unnoticed, and for most may seem normal. However, these designs can keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise a robust urban life. Are these types of designs necessary to help ensure safety? If we are using these to discourage unwanted behavior such as loitering, sleeping or skateboarding, the question becomes what makes the activity unwanted and the design element warranted?

In our first online forum, we aimed to explore this topic more in depth. Given that this is not a widely known topic, we asked if there was a central hub to reference these designs and use it as a way to educate leaders on the effects certain design elements pose for spaces. Though no central source exist to our knowledge, we asked if these elements could be measured to identify how hostile a space or city is. Could we use this as a means to educate the public on these elements and let them have a better say, especially those that are less fortunate, in what is acceptable design? In New York, where hostile architecture has flourished despite adding an increasing number of public spaces, they have been assessing some of these elements and enforcing citations to foster more friendly spaces.

If there are intentional acts within design to make hostile elements, could we use design to counteract hostility? What would the flip side of hostility look like and how might we create spaces that are inclusive and encourage unintended uses? Design can be used to provide inclusive options. The Americans With Disabilities Act helped create regulatory baselines that established codes to ensure those with impaired mobility can safely access and navigate a building. Could equity be a new metric infused within building codes? If we can remove barriers that create unnecessary discomfort and separation that enables everyone to participate equitably and independently in spaces.

In implementing hostile design elements, we learn that some can be reactionary, often responding to a nuisance, catastrophe, or innate fear. In Fort Worth public benches throughout downtown can be seen with arm bars, discouraging sleeping. Many are designed with curvatures or metal to make them intentionally uncomfortable, especially during a hot summer day. In the water gardens, handrails are installed with stubs, seemingly aimed at preventing skateboarding. Planter boxes through downtown are also built with similar stubs. The Downtown Ambassador Program, Fort Worth's private security and assistance program is also the first group to redirect homeless to services, most of which are outside of the downtown core. What is is about these activities or people that is so threatening? Is there harm in individuals looking for a place to rest or sleep for an extended period or skateboarding? Why has it become normal to prohibit this?

Unintended uses can be a natural by-product of design. Although it is easy to recognize some habits as bad there have also been some interesting ways people have utilized space. Take the Kimbell for example. The ponds aisle the travertine walkways leading to the westbound entrance, providing a micro-climate and engaging ones senses as they prepare to enter the museum. However, during a hot summer day you can see families utilizing the ponds as foot baths to cool off and enjoy the daylight. Although not intended, the use does provide value to the patrons that frequent the museum. It brings another realization with design. We often as designers can be vastly separated from those that ultimately use the space. Practicing architecture as a previous profession, I can admit I never worked directly with any of the future residents of the multi-family complexes I designed. We assumed for what we thought would work best, letting our education on proportions and design theory guide us. Although we did follow up exercises after to see how accessible the building really was, by that time it was to late to make any major changes.

Hostility is not limited to physical manifestations. More so, policy has been used as a tool to prohibit certain activities or classes of people. In a recent ordinance released by the City of Fort Worth, camping without a permit, which also includes sleeping in a car, is illegal. Although there have been some cases property owners dealt with trespassing and removing campsites from their property, the question does come up if there might have been a more inclusive or proactive approach. Loitering is also banned in some areas and prolong sitting can be met with suspicion. With the amount of time we take to design people out of spaces, could we instead redirect that time to understand the people that ultimately use the space to help guide the creation of more inclusive and creative places? Michael Rakowitz who designed personal shelters for the homeless, shows how design could be used to directly to provide solutions. Although there are far more robust solutions needed, this provides an attempt a offering design as an inclusive service.

In this situation where does one hang out? Is the act of hanging out only justified if it is commodified through the sale of food and beverages? Is it only for certain green spaces? For Que, he recalls how some of the public benches where very uncomfortable in a nearby park he used to visit. The hours available to the park where limited, often bringing a form of hostility, a subtle sign of you are not welcome or you are not trusted. The public library became a safe space, as the librarians would allow him to use to the space to relax and reflect on his thoughts. With that we discussed if certain spaces shouldn't change roles during times of the day to encourage certain activities during non peak hours.

We shared stories of a recently design homeless headquarters and learned how an original concept of dignity in design had been slowly stripped as new management took over the facility. Slowly, new hostile elements were introduced to respond to fear, specific events, and to garner a sense of safety. It is also a testament to our capacity as designers. Though we create things with bold and great intention, the use of our products is ultimately out of our hands.

On the flip side, it was asked if hostile design could be used strategically to increase safety? How would this look? Would it be possible through a community consent to allow certain elements, if deemed good for the public benefit? How does hostile design apply for private spaces? Should they adhere to a different standard, and would hostile design be acceptable in these circumstances? In the light of COVID-19, this seems like a possible reality as we will eventually scramble to determine what new norms will allows us to prioritize safety.

We find ourselves designing people out of spaces and it has become increasingly easy to do so (one can buy an anti-skater prop simply by googling it). Discussions of a new norm are becoming of increased importance. It is apparent that some elements of life will need to change, however trying to resume things as they where does not seem like a good milestone either. There were numerous disparities to contend with in our pre-covid life that have been amplified. We expect and celebrate when people rise up again the failures we have created, but is that a good reality to rebuild to? As designers, what role do we want to play in shaping this new reality? How do we identify intent in the spaces we create to ensure it benefits all the end users in their multiple forms? How do we create spaces where all, especially those that are most vulnerable, can take part in something again? And, how might we take the lessons from hostile design to create more inclusive environments and polices that allow us to better serve the people inhabiting our cities?


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