From bars on benches to spikes in doorways, design strategies attempting to deter “loitering” (or sleeping, if you’re homeless) were one of the worst urban trends of 2017. Now, British artist Stuart Semple has launched a digital campaign to name and shame the designers and cities creating and funding these so-called hostile designs.
Semple created his new website, HostileDesign.org, after his local Bournemouth Council placed bars across a number of benches to prevent homeless sleepers from reclining, the Art Newspaper reports. His site collects Instagram images tagged #HostileDesign to illustrate what the pernicious practice looks like, from buckets lining subway stairs, to walls topped with spikes, to public patios completely surrounded by bars.
Ultimately it’s a “stealthy way of policing public space,” he told the Art Newspaper. “These designs [legitimize] the point of view that homeless people are the enemy. Instead they need support, often with addiction or mental health.”
“It is a horrendous and prejudicial practice, that planners, fabricators, designers and councils pay huge amounts of money for,” he adds on the site.
For its part, Bournemouth Council told the Art Newspaper that it had made changes to “one or two benches in very specific locations in the town center several months ago” after hearing complaints from business owners and members of the public.
“As a council, we need to maintain a careful balance between our responsibility to the wider public to ensure that amenities are available to them, and our duty of care to vulnerable members of our community, including people rough sleeping,” the body added, stating that it delivers a range of services, including hostel beds.
City leaders in Spokane, Washington, tried a similar strategy last fall when they dumped $150,000 worth of boulders beneath an underpass where many homeless people slept. According to the local Spokesman-Review, officials said the boulders were meant to guide people into shelters, which they’d been “aggressively” funding. The dump was combined with an outreach campaign aimed at “spreading the word to the homeless community about what services are available to them, including signs below the freeway informing people how to get food, shelter and health care,” the paper reported at the time.
But many examples of hostile design simply plan the homeless out — without that second step.
“It gives a sense of credibility to prejudicial attitudes, and stops people having to address real issues,” Semple’s website states.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.