Defensive architecture: designing the homeless out of our cities

  • 2015-12-30
  • The Conversation

On any one night in London, there around 700 people sleeping in the city’s street. Rough sleeping is a risky decision – and almost always the choice of the most desperate. Yet the response of the state – and our society – is surprisingly hostile.

Rough sleeping – and homelessness more generally – are on the rise. But austerity measures have made things worse, by cutting funds to vital support services. On top of this, rough sleepers have good reason to fear abusive behaviour from passers-by. Shockingly, this has even included physical attacks, resulting in documented deaths.

But beyond the discomfort, the abuse and the absence of social support, there is another factor making life even more difficult for those sleeping on the streets. The very shape of our cities has started to reflect our hostility toward the homeless, in the form of design elements that prevent them from seeking refuge in public spaces. This phenomenon is known as “defensive architecture”.

Defensive architecture can involve gating off the doorways and left-over urban spaces, which provide some refuge for those who have to sleep rough in cities. More insidious is the use of small metal spikes to make surfaces impossible to sleep on. Seats are designed to slope; dividers are used to prevent people lying down; walls and paving are designed to be uncomfortable. Other examples have included shower rails which drench anyone using an enclave as a temporary refuge and music to make sleeping impossible.

There has been some backlash against these techniques: Bournemouth council was recently petitioned by more than 4,000 people over its use of bagpipe music, which was played at night to deter rough sleepers. And one notable case involving the use of small studs on a pavement outside Selfridges in Manchester quickly became infamous, after a long list of signatories penned a petition against the use of such techniques.

Yet numerous examples of these different varieties of defensive architecture continue to spring up in our cities. They are used – often in subtle ways – to guide, cajole or remove people who are unwanted in such spaces. Indeed, anti-homeless designs tend to go unnoticed by most people; its discomfort only apparent to those who are being excluded.

It is important to ask why so much effort is being taken to exclude the homeless as we “regenerate” city centres. Damage is not done to property or street furniture, and those sleeping rough move on in the morning. Visible city centre locations can provide relatively safe places to sleep for those unable to access temporary accommodation such as shelters and hostels. Designing out homelessness appears to be part of a wider ambition to make consumers and investors feel secure, while avoiding direct human intervention.