Hostile architecture proliferates unchecked, because it goes undetected by the average person. To them, the middle bars of bus stop benches, park benches, and sidewalk benches are just a funny, ineffective armrest. The decorative railings around planters are just that—decorative. It is only when someone tries to lie down on a bench, or sit on these sidewalk planters, that the nature of these fixtures becomes apparent.
By Therese Pham
While not quite a literal city on a hill, Los Angeles stands 305 feet above sea level, and owes much of its notoriety to the world’s film factory, Hollywood, and radiates popular culture. The city comes with everything that its reputation suggests: a booming food scene, plenty of art, and—according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—the second largest homeless population in the United States reaching over 55,000 homeless people. This homeless population is one that Tinseltown is attempting to excise via hostile architecture.
Hostile architecture, also known as ‘defensive planning,’ ‘excluding architecture,’ ‘disciplinary architecture,’ or sometimes even, ‘evil architecture,’ is defined by Swedish ethics and engineering professor, Karl de Fine Licht, as “urban architecture. . . aimed to exclude unwanted groups of people” as well as “’unwanted’ behaviors.” It is essentially human deterrent urban planning.
The real danger, however, of hostile architecture lies in its ability to appear completely normal. It sinks into a cityscape, and anyone not in its crosshairs can come across it and remain blissfully unaware of its nature. Hostile architecture proliferates unchecked because it goes undetected by the average person. To them, the bars in the middle of bus stop benches are just funny, ineffective armrests. Decorative railings around planters are just that—decorative. It is only when someone tries to lie down on a bench or sit on these sidewalk planters, that the nature of these fixtures becomes apparent. The “hows” of hostile architecture such as, “how did it come about?”, “how do we stop it?”, and so on, are complex. Urban planning is a large endeavor of city design that involves zoning maps, general plans, and public hearings. A city’s governing body is responsible for hiring a city manager who will direct the city’s general plan and create a blueprint detailing future developmental goals for, typically, the following 20 years. As of 2016, state law in California mandates that a plan must include the following eight elements: circulation, land use, housing, conservation, noise, safety, open space and environmental justice. In general, a city will be run on a “pluralistic representative democracy” which requires a public forum, a public hearing, and public review periods.
Hostile architecture proliferates unchecked, because it goes undetected by the average person. To them, the middle bars of bus stop benches, park benches, and sidewalk benches are just a funny, ineffective arm rest. The decorative railings around planters are just that—decorative. It is only when someone tries to lie down on a bench, or sit on these sidewalk planters, that the nature of these fixtures becomes apparent.
These things can vary from state to state and city to city depending on the severity of a project’s impact, noise, traffic and so on. Projects are taken on a “case-by-case” basis and fixtures will vary by each project. For example, proposed bus stops will be approved by Metro, while proposed park bench design will be approved by Parks and Recreation. Taken all together, this shows how hostile architecture arises as a series of decisions by different departments united under a city’s elected governing body, with public process embedded into the civil procedure.
Designing a city against the homeless is most likely a result of not having an efficient solution to the increasing prevalence of homelessness. L.A. experienced a 23% increase in homelessness during 2016-2017 alone, hostile architecture is not an intentional evil, but a clumsy, quick-fix bandage over a gaping wound. Ongoing dialogue is necessary to discover better solutions that extend compassion. A concept that writer John Lovett explores in his podcast, Pod Save America, during the episode “You can’t be a woke Hungarian fascist”, is how humans tend to be very good at “acute decency” — which is more reactive, but not so much at “chronic empathy” — which is more proactive.
What exactly would chronic empathy look like in terms of helping L.A.’s homeless? Performances of chronic empathy do not result in immediate, or obvious outcomes like that of acute decency. If hostile architecture is just clumsy pressure to staunch an open wound, what do the sutures look like? A good place to start might be with the chronically homeless, those who have been without shelter for more than a year, or four times in the past three years. Utah was able to decrease the number of chronically homeless by 91% in a decade with the Housing First Model. It is a plan that was nationally noticed in 2002 because of a man named Philip Mangano. The Housing First model is simple; it recognizes that instead of poorly managing the chronically homeless, it would be more economical in the long-term to provide them permanent housing. If something of this solution feels like it’s trading economic efficiency for moral honor, not to worry—that’s just the resultant soreness from flexing our chronic empathy.