Tags Posts tagged with "Hostile Architecture"

Hostile Architecture

The bench above — which includes armrests arranged to prevent people from sleeping on it — is one of only two available outdoor seating options at Port Jefferson train station. Photo by Raymond Janis

By Amanda Olsen

Recent reporting on benches at the Port Jefferson train station [Port Times Record, May 26] prompted further investigation into this practice in public spaces throughout the area. 

When reached via email for comment, MTA spokesperson, Sean Butler, defended the present layout of Port Jeff station. 

“Long Island Rail Road’s Enhanced Station Initiative brought transformative renovations to the Port Jefferson station in 2019,” he said. “We are committed to working closely with the community to give our riders the best possible experience, including through the siting of station benches.”

Butler pointed to the various changes made to the layout of the station, which he suggests sufficiently assuage concerns from passengers and residents. 

“The ESI project installed three benches inside the station house in 2019,” he said. “One existing bench was also provided inside the new platform shelter shed. In response to customers, LIRR added an additional outdoor bench this year.”

This seating arrangement seems to be the standard for railroad stations across Long Island. Browsing photos on the LIRR renovation website reveals divided benches at every building.

Hostile design in perspective

While employing design elements to manage public behavior is nothing new, modern hostile architecture gained momentum in the 1980s and ’90s as homelessness in the United States reached crisis levels. 

Hostile architecture in seating is about more than just benches divided by armrests. Sometimes a bench can be too deep or too shallow, or it slopes. Often through choice of material, such as rounded metal pipes, these benches are made intentionally uncomfortable. Through hostile design, the shape of the bench causes eventual discomfort to the user, and the person moves on.

It can also mean opting for seats that aren’t seats. Select subway stations in New York City have added “leaning bars” instead of more benches. These wooden blocks are supported by a metal frame along the wall that provides little support for the elderly or the physically disabled.

Surfaces that would normally be flat can also receive this treatment. Ridges and spikes keep people from sitting or leaning against walls and also deter skateboarders. Sloping or rounding the surface has a similar effect. Longer spikes, reminiscent of bird barriers, keep people from sleeping on warm exhaust vents.

Cordoning off doorways, windowsills and stairs to prevent people from resting or loitering is a common practice, but hedges can also act as barriers. Fences with points keep dogs from investigating shrubs and other plants. 

These measures are usually implemented to keep people from lingering or sleeping in public spaces. But they also have the unintended consequence of making spaces uncomfortable for other populations. 

Changing the configuration of benches can often render them unusable for those who need them most. Seating is of particular importance for the elderly and disabled. Someone whose limitations do not allow them to get up easily might struggle in the space created by the dividing armrests. Larger people also cannot use this narrow seating. 

The only guidance for outdoor bench armrests outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act states, “Benches will be most useful if they have full back support and armrests to assist in sitting and standing.” Placing armrests at intervals along the seat of the bench is a convenient manipulation to skirt this advice.

Photo by Raymond Janis
The two benches above are the only available outdoor seating areas at Port Jefferson train station. Professor Robert Rosenberger says the armrests along the benches are a common example of hostile design. Photos by Raymond Janis

By Raymond Janis 

During our investigation of seating shortages at Port Jefferson train station, TBR News Media took a closer look at the emerging field of hostile architecture, a design movement that employs subtle and often harmful means to alter public spaces. 

Robert Rosenberger, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is an expert on the subject of hostile design. He said through architecture, urban designers today can manipulate the environment to ward off certain populations. 

“Hostile architecture refers to when objects in public spaces are designed in a way to control those spaces and push out or control the behavior of already vulnerable groups,” he said in a phone interview. “Benches redesigned to deter people from sleeping on them is one of the main examples of hostile architecture, and we mainly see that done through the addition of armrests.”

The issue of hostile architecture was first observed on social media, according to Rosenberger. However, the issue gained traction among journalists and academics is now being explored as its own discipline. 

Professor Setha Low is director of The Public Space Research Group at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She researches hostile design and works with design students to envision public spaces that can be more user-friendly and inclusive. 

Hostile architecture is not only disruptive for the individuals that it targets. Low suggests that other vulnerable demographics can also get caught within the crosshairs.

“It doesn’t just make it hostile or unwelcoming for individuals who might want to sleep there,” she said. “It also doesn’t allow older people who might want a place to sit.”

Not all public spaces are equally public and accessible. In cases where hostile design is practiced, public environments can be highly restrictive and unwelcoming, and effectively private. 

“Public space is only as public as you make it,” Low said, adding. “There are a lot of ways we privatize environments and many things that can be done to reduce the publicness of the public space.”

Hostilely designed structures can be difficult to identify as they often blend into the built environment. Because they affect only certain populations, those unaffected can be oblivious to the problem. 

“People who are not targeted by these designs sometimes don’t even recognize that they are there,” Rosenberger said. “Something that’s interesting about hostile architecture is that once you see it for the first time, you start seeing it everywhere.” 

‘Our technologies are going to have values built into them. We have to actively decide the values that we want because otherwise, we have these other values creeping in that we may not even notice.’ — Robert Rosenberger

While there are laws regulating public spaces to ensure handicap accessibility, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are currently no laws that prohibit hostile architecture. “I don’t see anything at the national or state level where there is some kind of prohibition on this kind of design,” Rosenberger said. 

While hostile design most noticeably includes adding materials, such as armrests along public benches, it can also take form through subtraction.

“One of the trends in hostile architecture is removing objects from spaces rather than adding things to those objects,” Rosenberger said. “It’s a kind of design through removal, an architecture that involves no architecture.” He added, “Even if you are in a space and there are no objects there, that can be a form of hostile design as well.”

For Low, hostile architecture is not a design issue. Rather, it is a human issue which speaks to the ways in which people interact with one another. Architecture, therefore, is merely the reflection of the values of a society.

“I don’t think it’s the architecture going wrong,” she said. “I think we’re in a moment in time when some of the more negative impulses and illiberal activities are being tolerated when they wouldn’t have been in other times.” She added, “How we build our environment — our villages, our benches and everything else — is directly related to how we view ourselves and our society at that moment.”

Rosenberger sees two principal values embodied by the hostile architecture movement. “The first one would be a kind of technocratic control, a value of controlling spaces and who is in those spaces,” he said. “The other is a value of washing our hands of that and saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here — the space is innocent.’” He added, “The spaces and the objects are not innocent. They may look innocent, but actually we have values built into that space.”

Low believes public space is always designed with the intent to evoke a certain feeling or experience from the user. For this reason, a public space cannot be innocent or neutral. “The built environment is never neutral,” she said. “How do you feel in different places? Why do you feel that way and what is it in the built environment that is making you feel either encouraged to come or not?”

Rosenberger suggested that to overcome hostile design, a community must first define its own values and then rebuild the environment to express them.

“Our technologies are going to have values built into them,” he said. “We have to actively decide the values that we want because otherwise, we have these other values creeping in that we may not even notice.”