Defensive design: An effectively ineffective tactic

Vinay Pratapa, Lode Writer

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Ever observed park benches with arm-rests in the middle? How about railings in public places without a bar on it? Awnings with sprinklers? No? Well, this is not a case of bad design or the work of a disgruntled engineer, but purely intentional. In other words, it’s called defensive design, or hostile architecture.

Defensive design is used all the time to deter a certain group of people from misusing a public space. For example, in Seattle on September 2017, 18 shiny new bike racks were placed under a bridge prepared for demolition in a few months. Why, you ask? To deter homeless people from living there, of course! Obviously, they can’t sleep on the racks and nobody asks questions as to why the racks are placed there because it’s a public space. But nobody uses it because it’s cordoned off as a demolition site. The bike racks were installed immediately after a group of hobos were ushered out of one of the last few dry places they can live in since Seattle entered its season of heavy winter rains.

Most people don’t think about why these designs exist. That’s because these defenses are so subtly integrated into the architecture that people don’t even notice, except for the ones who use it often. In other words, people who are thought to have no business in that place. But is it really prevention of bad behavior we’re talking about here? Or just to create a sanitized environment that hides the real problems?

Defensive design is not just for people, it’s used as a tactic to moderate unwanted behavior. Some erected columns have spikes on top to prevent birds from sitting on them. Subways have cameras near turnstiles to prevent fare evasion. Even if the cameras don’t work, they work just as effectively because “big brother is watching you.” Armrests are included in the middle of benches to deter people from sleeping on them, thereby making a passive threat or as a way of saying “This bench isn’t yours forever.” A lot of clubs in Switzerland use blue light in their restrooms so that drug users can’t find their veins. All this looks like it’s working, that deterring skateboarding, vandalism and other petty crimes, or discouraging homeless people from living in public places can be avoided by using defensive design.

But wait a minute! Aren’t we forgetting the main problem here? Just because we prevent the homeless from setting up camp doesn’t mean that we’re aware that they exist. Rather than acknowledging the fact that homelessness exists, this kind of design prevents the public from seeing homelessness. Instead of solving the problem, this would simply shield the public from the inconvenient truth that homeless people exist and are struggling. Ironically, millions of dollars are spent on creating these hostile spaces, which could have been spent to solve the issues that prompt the decisions to make these designs.

Fortunately, we as journalists and the populace can change this, we can bring these issues into light, we have the power to take the rug off the dirt. For example, the bike racks in Seattle I was talking about? A citizen wondered about their purpose and put in a public information request. After she found out that they were there for no other reason other than to deter the homeless from living there, she forwarded the information to a local newspaper. The people were outraged and flooded the mayor with emails demanding the bike racks be removed. The mayor caved as expected and it’s one small victory in a sea of disappointments.

Defensive or hostile designs are million dollar scams that sweep real socioeconomic issues under the rug. The public should become aware of the problems faced by everyone, and seemingly normal things in the environment aren’t always so. Much work needs to be done by journalists and media to bring these issues to people to make a real difference. Next time, you see an oddly shaped bench, or grills instead of walls near a public building, you can be sure that they’re not just there because of bad design.

*Note: This article ran 12/6/2018