What is hostile architecture and how does it negatively impact homeless people? 

From spikes on the floor to benches preventing rough sleepers from lying down, so-called ‘hostile architecture’ has popped up in many towns and cities across the country.  

It is often so subtly incorporated into design, that it can be hard to spot. Other times, it is more obvious, added to urban environments to tackle the perceived problems of homeless people on the streets.  

One thing hostile architecture has in common is its purpose – to exclude homeless people from public spaces and isolate them from our communities.  

So, what exactly is hostile architecture?  

According to Wikipedia, it is an urban design strategy using elements of the built environment to purposefully restrict behaviour. It often targets people who use or rely on public space more than others, such as homeless people, by restricting the physical behaviours in which they can engage.  

It is also referred to as defensive architecture, hostile design, or defensive urban design. Examples include spikes on the pavement to prevent homeless people sitting down or sleeping there; sloped windowsills to stop people from sitting; and benches with armrests positioned to stop people from lying on them.  

How does it impact homeless people?  

Our cities and towns should be inclusive and welcoming. Instead, this hidden architecture is sending a clear message to homeless people – ‘we don’t want you here.’  

Akin to putting spikes on ledges to keep pigeons away, architecture designed to do the same with the homeless categorises them as ‘pests’ rather than people. Instead of tackling the real, underlying problems of homelessness and seeing the issues as something for society to solve, it is brushing the problems under the carpet.  

James O’Grady, founder and CEO of Keystage Housing, said: “It’s an example of how distasteful homelessness is for our populous. There is a great fear of homeless people, but where does that come from? Seeing homeless people might create a painful image that we have a problem in society and some people would rather not be reminded of that. But preventing homeless people from using public spaces doesn’t solve the problems we have. It’s putting a sticking plaster over them.” 

What can we do about it?  

The main thing we can all do about hostile architecture is to be aware of it and raise the alarm to encourage our public spaces to be inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Look out for hostile architecture and ‘call-out’ those responsible for installing it.  

In 2014 there was a public outcry against the use of ‘anti-homeless’ spikes outside a London residential complex. A petition was launched and a sleep-out protest was held resulting in the spikes being removed a few days later. It proves that, together, we can force change and hold those responsible for hostile architecture to account.  

The Twitter account @hostiledesign has been working to raise awareness of hostile architecture across the world, encouraging people to share examples on the social media platform and include the location. With more than 100,000 followers, the account has publicised some success stories. One example saw a priest destroying rocks under a bridge in Brazil, installed to prevent homeless people from resting there.  

“The drive behind hostile architecture is from people wanting to keep a place ‘beautiful’,” explained James, adding: “People consider homeless people to be the opposite of beautiful. But instead of putting energy and money into keeping homeless people away, we can all become more aware and contribute to working out how we can prevent homelessness and how we can help those people who are sleeping on the streets. How can we make everyone ‘beautiful’?” 

James urges everyone to put themselves in the shoes of a homeless person, adding: “Every homeless person is someone’s daughter or son or brother or sister. Hostile architecture is reducing a person to a pest.  

“As a society, it’s easy to accept this subtle hostility towards homeless people and dial ourselves out. But every life should be appreciated and hostile architecture is diminishing the appreciation for life.  

“We are seeing homeless people as pests to society. But really, it’s the systemic flaws in our society that have failed them. This is what we should find intolerable, not homeless people.” 

We can invest our time and money instead in supporting charities and organisations making a difference to homeless people and working to tackle the issues.  

A great example is Luton Homeless Partnership, which represents more than 20 local services and people with lived experience, working across the town to help people build a life away from the street.  

The Big Change Initiative is asking Lutonians to donate spare time, items, or money to help people experiencing homelessness. Find out more here https://cvsbeds.org.uk/bigchangeluton.  


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