Hostile Design: Who Are Our Cities Made For?

In both obvious and hidden ways, our public spaces are designed to deter and attract certain types of people, Gavin Tracey investigates the increasingly common trend of hostile architecture.

In December of 2016, a tattoo parlour in Dublin City Centre, Dublin Ink, made headlines when they installed sprinklers outside of their doors to prevent rough sleepers and drug users from taking shelter. This decision was met with both immense criticism, as well as a large amount of understanding among the general population. The homeless community, as well as those who advocate for their rights, decried the decision as being inhumane and cruel. Soaking people with cold water in the freezing conditions of winter, they argued, was dangerous, and dehumanised homeless people even further. The tattoo parlour claimed that it was not their intention to “soak” homeless people, that they only meant to deter drug users for the protection of their staff, who were forced to clean up syringes and vomit on a daily basis (Dublin City Council do have a waste management division to deal with issues such as this).

“There are a myriad of small but intentional design choices in cities, and even here in UCD, that discourage us from using certain objects in certain ways.”

It raised a larger question however, of how we design our urban spaces and who we design them for. There are a myriad of small but intentional design choices in cities, and even here in UCD, that discourage us from using certain objects in certain ways. The sprinklers outside Dublin Ink are perhaps the most egregious example of anti-homeless design, but if you look around Dublin City, you can find examples almost everywhere. Most ubiquitous is the way in which benches are designed. We are all familiar with the tall, slanted, narrow benches at bus stops, which deter a number of activities; they are too narrow and slanted to sleep on, and the height and dimensions deter sitting for a prolonged period of time. Almost any bench in a public place will have some sort of barrier or partition in the middle, ensuring that the bench can only be used for sitting.

Speaking to the University Observer, TD Paul Murphy says of hostile design that “it sends to rough sleepers, and homeless people more generally, the message of you’re not welcome here, this isn’t your space, this isn’t a public space, it’s private space, and it’s pretty chilling.” The University Observer contacted numerous homeless charities and advocacy groups, many responded that there had not been research done on the issue.

The issue of hostile architecture has even led some to take matters into their own hands. A UK based art movement called “Design Crime” is drawing awareness to the issue by distributing stickers that people can place on objects whose sole purpose is to exclude. Speaking to the University Observer, the group said “The campaign is to raise awareness for design crimes, so that people start to question them within their own communities and ultimately opinions can shift and hopefully we start to see designs in our public spaces that are cruelty-free.”

Even here in UCD, we have benches with metal partitions for precisely this reason (they can be found around the lake and in front of the Engineering building). Here too you can see another example of preventative design; small metal balls installed along the edge of a low lying wall, to prevent skateboarding. There is a lively debate around the so-called positive and negative aspects of this sort of design. Many public bathrooms have started to use blue lights, to deter heroine users from injecting; the blue lights prevent users from being able to locate veins. Trinity College installed these blue lights after a man was found dead in 2002 in Trinity bathrooms of an overdose.

“It sends to rough sleepers, and homeless people more generally, the message of you’re not welcome here… and it’s pretty chilling.”

Aside from rough sleepers, however, those who bear the brunt of these designs are teenagers. There has been no shortage of inventive ways businesses and cities have employed technology and design to prevent teenagers from hanging out outside of shopping centres and businesses. A number of housing estates in England have installed pink lights in places where teenagers gather, to highlight any blemishes on their skin, the reasoning being that teenagers will not congregate in a space that makes them unattractive. It was met with some criticism, but also had a lot of support behind it; the ethical issue of treating the insecurity of teenagers as a way to disperse them was never brought up. Other shops play high pitched noises that are irritating to younger people, but which cannot be heard by anyone over the age of about 25. This kind of deterrent, known as the Mosquito is highly popular, but has caused controversy, as it adversely affects people with autism, as the condition can produce aural hypersensitivity, and therefore this can cause them

There have been attempts to rectify the trend of anti-homeless design, with a bill being introduced to the Dáil late last year to ban them from public places, according to Paul Murphy on the grounds that “it would provide a tiny modicum of relief, and send a signal about our approach to homeless people.” However the bill was opposed by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Murphy believes that it is likely “we will see the trend increasing” as “we’re seeing a massive rising trend in homelessness in terms of rough sleepers.” For Murphy there is cause for hope, but he says things will get worse before they get better. Stuart, from the ‘Design Crime’ movement was more optimistic, stating that “cruelty-free design seems like a possibility” in the future.