Adapted from stories found in The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohsltedt
Cities and their citizens are in constant dialog, but sometimes that conversation is one-sided. Master plans and grand designs aside, cities employ a wide array of smaller, more targeted, top-down strategies in public spaces, using designed objects to shape the behavior of residents. These strategies are embraced by some but criticized by others. To critics, dissuasive approaches (often called defensive design or hostile architecture) can be subtly pernicious and even downright cruel.
Defensive Design From the Top Down
Take public benches, for example, many of which are specifically crafted to let people take a short break without being able to fully relax. Unpleasant public seats at parks, bus stops, and airports are made to keep people from getting too comfortable. Discomfort is something we tend to think of as an unwanted byproduct of bad design, but in this case, the discomfort is the point. It would be easy to think of hostile architecture as a failure of design, but Selena Savić and Gordan Savičić, editors of the book Unpleasant Design, suggest that if the design does what it is supposed to, it is a success.
“A classic [example] is the bench with armrests in between” seats, says Savić, which “lets you rest your arm . . . but at the same time restrict[s] any other kind of use.” Armrests are the most common method of preventing people from sleeping in places where the establishment only wants them to sit. “Leaning” benches are also popular at bus stops. These lack a backrest and are often elevated and tilted to prevent actual sitting. Some critics have theorized that the seats in certain fast food chains were designed to serve as “15-minute chairs” that are intentionally too uncomfortable to sit in for a long period of time and thus encourage customer turnover.
The object that Savić considers a particular masterpiece of unpleasant design is the Camden bench. Unlike spikes, which scream their hostile intent, the Camden bench is innocuous in its appearance, although it’s rather lumpy and not particularly inviting. Designed by Factory Furniture for the London borough of Camden, the bench is a strange, angular, sculpted, solid chunk of concrete with rounded edges and slopes in unexpected places.
The complex shape of this seating unit makes it virtually impossible to sleep on. It is also anti-dealer because it features no slots or crevices to stash drugs in; it is anti-skateboarder because the edges on the bench fluctuate in height to make grinding difficult; it is anti-litter because it lacks cracks that trash could slip into; it is anti-theft because recesses near the ground allow people to tuck bags behind their legs away from would-be criminals; and it is anti-graffiti because it has a special coating to repel paint. On top of all of this, the object is so large and heavy that it can also serve as a traffic barrier. One online critic called it the perfect “anti-object.” But perhaps the most common form of hostile seating is even subtler: the utter lack of it in some places. When you notice there is no place to rest for blocks and blocks, that is a design choice, too. In many cases, hostile design decisions and so-called sit-lie ordinances are paired together to create an environment that is unwelcoming to anyone seeking respite.
Hostile Architecture From the Bottom Up
Not all hostile architecture is city-imposed. Bottom-up interventionists can reshape cities, too. Citizens have been known to take matters into their own hands to solve the problems they feel officials have neglected. But these can be controversial and have unintended side effects.
Consider the case of two dozen boulders that appeared on a San Francisco sidewalk in late 2019. At first, no one was sure what to make of these massive stones that were a few feet tall and wide, and too big to be carried by a single rogue individual. Most people assumed that these additions had to be the work of the city, which has a history of using rocks to deter rough sleepers. But it soon came to light that this wasn’t a top-down imposition but rather a bottom-up intervention—the work of a group of neighbors seeking to disrupt illegal activities along the sidewalk. These residents had pooled together $2,000 to buy and place 24 huge stones on a public footpath just off of Market Street in the Mission District.