Noah Brier | December 11, 2020

Why is this interesting? The Hostile Architecture Edition

On cities, the use of outdoor space, and baseline dignity.

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We wanted to re-up this lightly edited piece from the earliest (sub-1000 subscribers) days of WITI since public space has taken on a whole new role in 2020 as one of the few places we can safely be outside our homes. I suspect this new role of public outdoor space is here to stay as people have come to appreciate and respect the role it plays even more than they did before and with it, we will need to rethink many of the issues outlined here as well as simple issues like access to bathrooms. Thanks for reading. - Noah (NRB)

Noah here. You know how benches in parks and airports always have dividers to ensure people can’t lay down comfortably? Or ledges have little spikes to keep people from sitting on them? Maybe you’ve even heard about the park that employs sonic warfare to prevent people from being there after hours? Well, turns out this design pattern is called “hostile architecture” and the goal is to ensure that regular people don’t use spaces in ways that weren’t intended. Here’s how Vice describes it:

At its core, hostile or "defensive" architecture amounts to a forever campaign waged, consciously or otherwise, by designers, landlords, and developers to force people to use property in exactly one way. Sometimes, the end result isn't exactly a tragedy; skaters might have to go somewhere else, for instance. But in its most malignant form, hostile architecture can deter homeless folks from resting. In those cases, public or quasi-public spaces of cities—often defined by unequal access to transit, groceries, and other essentials—become a visceral extension of society's collective disregard for their fate.

Why is this interesting?

There are fewer and fewer spaces that you can linger in for free. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the library is actually one of the few indoor locations that anyone could spend time in pre-pandemic that both had the basic requirements of modern life—power, wifi, and bathrooms—and you didn’t have to order a latte every few hours. POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces), “which are outdoor and indoor spaces provided for public enjoyment by private owners in exchange for bonus floor area or waivers”, were supposed to help deal with some of this issue by forcing private landowners to maintain public spaces. Unfortunately, the landowners haven’t held up their end of the bargain. A 2017 NYC study found more than half of the spaces didn’t meet the city’s terms. Some had signs of construction, others were even more hostile:

Another space singled out by the Comptroller's Office is the lobby at 101 Barclay Street, owned by Bank New York Mellon. According to auditors, "the POPS is entirely closed to the public, and auditors who attempted to inspect the site were stopped, prevented from taking photographs, and escorted to the security office where they were questioned. Building security informed auditors that this lobby had been closed to the public for at least 15 years."

While this is merely an annoyance for many of us who just want a quick phone charge, it’s much more problematic to be blocking so much public space from those who really need it. From Gothamist:

As the city deals with a housing crisis and an unprecedented rise in homelessness, the public environment has become increasingly unwelcome to places where the homeless have traditionally found shelter: spikes along window ledges, staircases, alcoves and fire hydrants. In 2014, the Strand was accused of using its sprinkler system to drive away homeless people from sleeping beneath its iconic red awning.

There are some table stakes required for modern, civil living in cities: space to linger (no purchase required), access to bathrooms, and baseline dignity. At this pandemic moment and moving forward, cities will need to find a better balance between these hostile, aggressive tactics, public safety, and basic human rights. (NRB)


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Unconventional gift idea of the day:

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

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