London’s Camden bench, an angular, chiseled slab of concrete with rounded ends and indiscriminate slopes, has been infamous since its 2012 installation, despite its relatively innocuous appearance and perceived use.
The park bench—at first glance, a benign object—was ostensibly crafted to give passersby a point of rest. But the simple seat strongly implies impermanence.
“Benches are to sit on, not to lie on,” says Cara Chellew, a former researcher for the Global Suburbanisms project at Toronto’s York University. “A bench with a center bar sends a message: It is intended to keep people from sleeping … no one should be laying on benches.”
Chellew is not espousing her own beliefs but explaining the philosophies that underpin the practice of hostile architecture, an urban design strategy that typically uses elements of the built environment to control behavior and maintain order.
Public seating, such as the Camden bench, says don’t make yourself at home. And while discomfort is generally thought of as an unwanted byproduct of poor design, the uneasiness that stems from the seat is intentional.
“When we designed the Camden bench, we were given an extensive list of requirements, on a fairly small budget,” cofounder Dean Harvey of Furniture Factory—the design firm behind the Camden bench—told CNN in late 2017. “…We just came at it from a fairly blunt angle. [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…”
The bench serves as the quintessential example of hostile architecture. Other physical manifestations include bolts installed on windowsills and pavement in front of retail locations; time-based sprinklers that appear without anything to water; concrete barriers and planters; interruptions in ledges and flat surfaces; and more.
The landscape architecture community has adopted the trendy practice of installing concrete rectangular bench blocks, according to Chellew. But to discourage potential skateboarders, who could enjoy the features, metal protrusions are often added.
That creates “defensive architecture used in places that don’t have any conflict happening,” she notes. “So, it’s not just a practical way of solving conflict without the need for authorities; we’re creating spaces that anticipate conflicts.”
Benches with built-in armrests often achieve this very objective: preventing people from sleeping in public places without intervention.
For property owners and civic leaders, designers can thwart unwelcome uses of public spaces with specifically engineered furnishings and features, serving as a cost-efficient and convenient method to outsource security.
It allows them to “manage these spaces through physical design without the need for authorities to intervene,” Chellew explains, noting that police officers and security personnel regularly consult on such projects.
It’s common for bystanders not to recognize these hostile devices, according to Chellew. “That is actually purposeful … this stuff is meant to be unnoticed by everyday users.”
Across her research, she has transitioned from using the term hostile architecture to defensive urbanism, noting the practice encompasses more than physical planning and construction, but broadly includes management techniques and behavioral tools.
It can be as subtle as installing intensely bright lights throughout parks in the name of safety but with the added function of deterring those who might otherwise opt to sleep in the open space.
Among the many concerns associated with the practice of defensive urbanism is that it affects people who most use and rely on public space, including youth populations and those who are experiencing homelessness.
“The trend is bad for civic life,” Chellew says. “The elements that make spaces hostile for targeted populations also make them hostile for the general public.” But she notes that at the same time, “Vulnerable groups of people suffer disproportionately when there is a lack of benches, public washrooms, and shelter from the elements.”
Others argue that the need to defend our communities from homeless populations, antisocial youth, and other threats has increased.
In a statement, the city of Toronto publicly defended the use of armrests, saying: “For some people with disabilities and seniors, two arm rests … will significantly enhance accessibility and support the person transferring into and out of the seat using both arms for support.”
Chellew concedes that a bench’s center bar can provide increased accessibility, but she cautions people to see if other requirements are fulfilled before assuming positive intent.
“If people were taking accessibility seriously, then why is it just the benches?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s hostile and inaccessible for people who are homeless. It violates accessibility rights for so many other people, including the elderly, disabled, those with mobility and stamina issues,” and others.
Beyond city-imposed hostile infrastructure, community members have taken it upon themselves to reshape their landscapes as well.
In late 2019, roughly two dozen boulders appeared on a San Francisco sidewalk thanks to a neighborhood group seeking to disrupt unwanted activities in the area.
The boulders became a flashpoint in the city’s homeless crisis. Though the landscaping initiative may have helped root out homeless encampments on the block, homeless advocates decried the action as punitive.
Sure, some defensive designs may seem noble at their points of origin, but when the supposed solutions tackle symptoms, rather than the root cause, societal problems are never really solved but merely kicked down the road to the next neighborhood.
Referring to the Camden bench, architect James Furzer, whose designs aim to combat hostile architecture, said in a 2017 interview: “I feel we need to design spaces that encourage good behavior—and turn antisocial behavior into welcoming behavior. Ultimately, architecture isn’t the cure of homelessness. There’s a much greater issue with governments, properties, and land laws.”