As you take a walk around the city in which you live, what do you notice about the architecture? Do the benches have arm rests? Has the pavement outside buildings been replaced with stones? Is there anything blocking the storm grates? These design features may seem innocuous, but they have a purpose. They are all examples of anti-homeless architecture.
What is Anti-Homeless Architecture?
Anti-homeless architecture, or “hostile architecture” is a type of urban design that is meant to prevent people from using public spaces in “undesirable” ways. It uses features like curved benches, spikes or bolts on windowsills, and even plants to discourage loitering, littering, and sleeping .
It is controversial to say the least.
The use of design to prevent homeless people from sleeping in certain places or young people from using the city as a skate park angers some. Others believe it is necessary to keep people safe.
Examples of Hostile Architecture
As the instance of homelessness has increased in many cities around the world, so too has the use of anti-homeless architecture. The following is a list of examples of this type of urban design, that you may not have even noticed in your neighborhood.
Benches are a very common place for someone who is sleeping on the street to lay down for a rest. For this reason, many towns and cities have begun changing the design of their benches to prevent them from doing so.
1. Benches with armrests.
You may think that armrests are there for your own comfort, but they have a dual-purpose. Since they break up the flat surface of the bench, they make that bench impossible to lay down on .
2. Slanted or curved benches
Have you ever seen slanted benches at a bus stop and wondered why anyone would design something so uncomfortable? This is another example of anti-homeless architecture. As you can likely imagine, it is very difficult to lay down on something that is curved or slanted without falling off. Thus, this discourages rough sleepers from spending the night there .
Basically, any time you see a bench with a “unique” design, ask yourself- could I comfortably lay down on that? If the answer is no, then you’re looking at hostile urban design.
During colder weather, many people living on the streets will look for storm grates and vents to sleep on because they provide some warmth. For this reason, you may notice in some cities that these have been altered to make it more difficult for homeless people to have access to them.
3. Raised storm grates
One example of anti-homeless architecture is raising the storm grate off the ground, sometimes quite substantially. This is because when the grate is not flush with the ground, people can’t lay down on it .
4. Storm grate covers
In some cases, you may see raised storm covers over top of grates. This may look like some kind of art piece, but in reality it keeps people from sleeping on the grate .
5. Fenced grates
In some cities, you may see fences surrounding grates. Again, this is to keep people from laying down on them or huddling around them .
Outside Buildings and On Sidewalks
When looking for shelter, many rough-sleepers will try to find places that are tucked into corners against buildings. Usually, this is to protect them somewhat from the elements and to stay out of the way of passers-by on the sidewalk. Knowing this, some cities have designed these areas to deter them.
Some establishments have installed small spikes in front of their building or business where a homeless person might attempt to take refuge. You may also notice spikes on raised platforms, in front of doors, and in ground-level window sills. All of these have the same purpose: to prevent people from hanging around too long.
Spikes are one of the most controversial forms of anti-homeless architecture, likely because they are the most obvious. Critics have said that they “treat homeless people like pigeons” and turn “the destitute into vermin” .
7. Awning gaps
In front of some stores, you might notice that there is a substantial gap between the wall and the store’s awning. This is not a design flaw. This prevents someone from leaning against a wall while remaining under the awning. In many cases, it is a deliberate decision to prevent homeless people from taking shelter there .
8. Street dividers
Many cities have put plants and raised garden beds on sidewalks and major pedestrian areas. This, of course, provides a nice touch of greenery in what would otherwise be a concrete jungle. They also, however, often perform a secondary role. By placing these structures in the middle of the walkway, you direct foot traffic to one side of the sidewalk- usually the side with shelter. This prevents homeless people from sleeping on that sidewalk because there is no sheltered area without heavy foot traffic .
Earlier today, Jason, the man who sleeps in front of the Tim Hortons at Victoria and Dundas streets said police asked him to move across the street so these planters could be installed. The other side of the street is not sheltered from rain or wind. Story to come. pic.twitter.com/8HkH2pqGwu— The Eyeopener (@theeyeopener) March 22, 2018
9. Course rocks and stones
You may notice beneath awnings, in front of buildings, or in other areas where someone might take shelter that the smooth sidewalk pavement stops. In its place are a collection of stones or coarse rocks. This, of course, would be incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on, and thus prevents people from bedding down in those spots .
Bridges provide a significant amount of shelter, which is why they are often popular spots for rough sleepers. For this reason, many cities have tried to come up with solutions to keep people out from underneath them.
10. Boulders under bridges
To accomplish this, some cities have placed large rocks or boulders underneath bridges. This makes it impossible for homeless people to set up camp there, and is a very simple yet effective form of anti-homeless architecture .
What is Wrong with Anti-Homeless Architecture?
This type of urban design is very controversial. As we said earlier, some people think it is necessary for safety, while others say it targets vulnerable people who have nowhere else to go.
Dean Harvey is the co-founder of Factory Furniture, a company that designs “hostile benches”. He says that hostile architecture can provide a solution. It can prevent drug drops and stop people from hanging around too long.
James Furzer, on the other hand, is an architect whose designs try to actively combat anti-homeless architecture. He says that whether or not you think of those designs of positive or negative comes down to what you deem to be “antisocial behaviour”.
“Drug use is a different kind of antisocial behavior to skateboarding,” he says. “It’s a criminal activity that has a negative impact. Sleeping rough and hanging out with a group of friends isn’t particularly criminal.” 
In his opinion, if he is designing spaces that discourage people from hanging around too long, he has failed his job as an architect.
Hostile Anti-Homeless Architecture Design Isn’t New
Both architects note that hostile design has been around for hundreds of years. Many old buildings feature spikes on walls and fences to prevent someone from attempting to scale a wall of fence.
Furzer notes, however, that the rise in homelessness has made this type of architecture more noticeable, particularly when you’re seeing spikes jutting out from the sidewalk.
“Homeless people are geniuses — they will find shelter wherever they can. It’s only after that that people realize, “Hold on, they’re using that to sleep rough, we need to stop this.” Then the add-ons appear,” he explains .
Architectural historian Jon Ritter says that what is hostile to some may be defensive to others.
“We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” he says .
That being said, even Furzer says that there is a place for hostile architecture. He notes that there are designs that actually encourage self-policing and self-security, but he believes that recently it’s gone too far. He argues that we are designing people out of places, and that it’s become aggressive.
Treating the Symptom
The main problem that many critics point out with anti-homeless architecture is that it treats the symptom and not the problem. Harvey argues, however, that as an architect, his job is not to address why certain problems exist, only to provide an architectural solution to them. He uses the design of one of his benches, the Camden bench, as an example.
“We just came at it from a fairly blunt angle,” he explained. “(The council required that people) couldn’t sleep on it, stash drugs in it, or skate on it. When you level all those things up, it comes out as a pretty defensive piece of furniture, but in fact, all we’re doing is enabling it to be used as a piece of furniture — so people could walk into town and take a rest on it.” 
Furzer says that architecture isn’t the cure for those experiencing homelessness. If, however, we are excluding them from sleeping on benches, we need to include them somewhere else. He believes that we need to start designing cityscapes with some sort of inclusive and secure areas. This way, they can at least take themselves out of the public eye.
“Architecture isn’t going to solve the issue, but it can provide some sort of temporary solution just to give them some sense of well-being.” 
- “The debate: Is hostile architecture designing people — and nature — out of cities?” CNN. December 2017
- “The rise of hostile architecture.” CNN. Kathy Wong. February 15, 2018.
- “15 Examples of ‘Anti-Homeless’ Hostile Architecture That You Probably Never Noticed Before.” Interesting Engineering. Christopher McFadden. November 22, 2020.
- “Anti-homeless studs at London residential block prompt uproar.” The Guardian. Staff. June 2014.
- “‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out.” NY Times. Winnie Hu. November 2019.