Clarissa Bell, with art by Charles Hill
Cities are culturally understood as the lifeblood of countries, full of bustling activity. Poetry, literature and street fashion all capture how what we associate with urban spaces – high rise architecture, economic activity, and bustling streets. We normally wouldn’t think of these characteristics as exclusive, defensive, or hostile in any way.
However, we never really ask why cities are designed the way they are, and therefore aren’t aware of who we’re leaving out in our understandings of urban spaces. The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda, aims to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, but doesn’t detail how cities in themselves are socially unsustainable by design. Design is, in other words, dictating societal psychology of inclusion.
Hostile architecture is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “the design of public spaces in a way that stops unwanted behaviour”. These features can be quite subtle, and may appear quite harmless to the untrained eye. However, their implementation in urban spaces has become controversial. On one hand, a design concept that seeks to decrease “unwanted behaviour” may seem appealing – we’d all love spaces that incorporate safer, greener and accessible infrastructure. On the other hand, we’re not in control of who gets to decide what behaviour is deemed unwanted. Those who do get to decide often possess a particular idea of not what, but who is unwanted. Most often, these features are built to deter the homeless population and those sleeping rough in certain areas in the city. One famous example took place in June 2014, when ‘anti-homeless spikes’ were built outside a block of luxury flats in London to deter rough sleepers. Similar spikes were placed outside the local Tesco, a popular spot for the area’s homeless population, , with more documented cases occurring in Paris and New York and in Manchester in 2018. As recently as February of this year, a petition circulated that aimed to end purposeful instances of hostile architecture. It did not meet the 10,000 signatures mark. The issue isn’t so much what the design is and how it seeks to combat antisocial behaviour, the hostility of these measures is inextricably linked to the intent of who is going to be removed.
When we think of our understanding of urban areas and how they’re unsustainable, it takes time before we start to deconstruct how society views the homeless population. In reality, all we need are statistics and a handful of the vast array of global examples to create a very informative picture. In England, a survey was conducted with 563 people who reported sleeping rough in the past year. Of the 563 surveyed, 23% reported sleeping rough, and 55% reported that they stayed in short term accommodation. Those sleeping rough and sofa surfing (only 6% of the cases documented) were also stated to be less likely to be reached in the survey, as the majority of surveys took place in homeless hostels and centres – so knowing this, there is a large fragment of this population that aren’t accounted for in the data. In Northern Ireland, 16,802 households between 2019-2020 presented themselves as homeless, and in Wales 9,993 households in the same year. For Scotland, it’s 42,149 people as of 31 March this year. There are statements from homeless people all over the world who have reported hostile, degrading treatment such as being hosed down and made to listen to the sounds of chainsaws and motorcycles as deterrence techniques. In 2017, the government claimed it was investing £550 million on tackling homelessness, but much of this could have been spent on local authorities buying homeless people single way tickets to other areas entirely. The way in which society views homelessness and poverty, in the UK and globally, cannot be held if we claim to strive for inclusivity. In all these examples above, architecture has been used by those in power as a tactic to avoid any means of welfare, compassion, or social and governmental responsibility.
The question stands, but the answer is implied: how will these populations be treated as environmental and climate change continues to worsen? Our society’s mismatched view of who is going to be protected will rear its ugly head soon if we continue to do nothing, as studies have continued to identify climate vulnerabilities as an increasing factor in future rates of homelessness. There are various ways this could potentially be alleviated – green social housing and access to green infrastructure, improving the efficiency of housing initiatives to ensure basic needs are being met on a long-term scale, and pressing the need for co-operation between local authorities and the locality they intend to represent the needs of. A good starting point would be to remove the very design features of cities that deprive so many of sources of shelter, and instead, design urban architecture to create a feeling of collective safety and community that allows the populace to have their basic needs met. The climate crisis will be an ultimate testing point in how we redefine inclusion and community.
As COP26 approaches, there is some hope to be found amongst the discussions about emissions, anthropogenic warming, and (inevitably) polar bears. The hope lies in the conversation we need to have about how our politicians expect us to get back to work and work together with our fellow citizens when we continue to ignore and erase those who bear the brunt of their negligence.