In Times of Crisis, Hostile Architecture Poses a Bigger Threat Than Ever

The coronavirus and social upheaval are creating a new breeding ground for hostile design that’s even more insidious than the uninviting park bench.

"We were feral, wandering around the city," Ocean Howell says about his days as a professional street skater in San Francisco. In old YouTube videos, Howell can be seen kickflipping through crowded city sidewalks, accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack. "Black Rock, Brown Marble, and the loading docks," he recalls, listing bygone skating hangouts on a recent Zoom call. "Any industrial landscape, the old naval base at Alameda, we were there."

Howell earned sponsorships and renown in the ’90s riding for Birdhouse, Tony Hawk’s skateboard company, and is still remembered today for his unmistakable "steez"—a kind of inner-city sprezzatura. But today, the only streets Howell lurks are the footpaths around the Department of History at the University of Oregon, where he lectures on the history of urban planning. "I saw that there was too much money coming, so I got out and went to grad school," he jokes about his career switch.

The two versions of Howell—pro skater and college professor—might seem at odds, but they share something in common: a keen awareness of hostile architecture, or design that excludes marginalized populations or prohibits certain behaviors in public spaces. "As a skateboarder, I was always attuned to the fine-grade details of urban design, circulations, flows, materiality," he says. "I knew when I was being designed against."

Ocean Howell takes his board for a spin.

Howell noticed how ledges and benches began to feature broken planes, jagged edges, and rough surfaces in response to skateboarding countercultures—and how cities responded with more policing and surveillance. Today he is an expert on the subject of hostile architecture, and travels the world to consult on projects and participate in panels educating the public on its consequences.

The uncomfortable, uneven, segmented bench—a well-known symbol of hostile architecture—not only defends against skaters, but also antagonizes homeless people looking for a place to rest. But other forms of hostile architecture exist all around us. "It’s happening everywhere; architecture that defends against homelessness and skateboarding is only an extreme expression," says Howell. "Subtler versions of it are doing similar kinds of work."

Hostile architecture near Howell’s home at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest dominating headlines, the world is at the brink of a new age of hostile design interventions. These two emergencies, interpreted as design problems, could be addressed through effective crowd control and surveillance—"solutions" that have the potential to exacerbate the alienation and disenfranchisement of our most vulnerable populations. Only open dialogue, education, and effective communication between the makers and users of public space can prevent the public spaces of the "new normal" from becoming more exclusive than before.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest dominating headlines, the world is at the brink of a new age of hostile design interventions.

After carefully cataloguing his experiences as both a skater and office worker in the city (Howell also worked for a time as an editor at a publishing house in San Francisco)—and after one particularly violent encounter with police—he published the paper that launched his career in academia, The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space. "I argued that the practice of hostile architecture is wholly integrated with the process of surveillance," he says.

According to Howell, the design of defensive interventions necessitates the careful study of people’s movements. "Whether it’s making sure you can be cornered, or that you can’t congregate, it’s about designing spaces that avoid certain outcomes and promote others," he says. "It’s not only about a space and what happens within it, but who is there and whether it keeps certain people out."

Renard Bridgewater performs at a concert in New Orleans.

Two thousand miles away in New Orleans, Renard Bridgewater is engaged in his own fight against hostile architecture. Under the pseudonym Slangston Hughes, Renard has been making hip hop music since 2009, and is active in the local arts community. "Much of what I do also involves dealing with law enforcement and working with street musicians to keep them from being summoned or arrested," says Bridgewater.

Bridgewater is an active member of Eyes On Surveillance (EOS), a coalition of New Orleans groups concerned with the prevalence and centralization of all-seeing cameras across the city. According to Bridgewater, hundreds of private and public cameras connected to the city’s real-time crime center "put street performers under the watchful eye of the police department on a continuous basis."

EOS has been successful in blocking, delaying, and changing the terms of various city ordinances and proposals—including some which demanded the proliferation of "smart" telephone poles equipped with cameras across the city. "Inspired by San Francisco’s recent ban, we now want to be the first city in the South to ban facial recognition and automatic license plate recognition," says Bridgewater. "We want to bring to the table community input and introduce clear definitions surrounding surveillance technology and its uses."

Like Howell, Bridgewater’s work emerges from the ground up—from an intimate and creative understanding of the city and its intrinsic cultures. "A lot of my music reflects the environment I find myself in," says Bridgewater. "It has social commentary, it’s pro-Black, and reflects my experiences as a Black man in New Orleans."

According to Bridgewater, "surveillance is a tool of policing that disproportionately affects Black and minority communities. Instead of getting public safety from the top down, and being told how to solve crime through technologies the public barely understands, everyone needs to have an opportunity to see it and discuss it."

When it is not immediately recognizable, hostile architecture often masquerades as a solution to contemporary problems such as health and public safety. It is packaged with nobler goals like sustainability, and often underpins the premise of "smart cities" aiming to centralize city management through invasive data-gathering practices. In New Orleans, Bridgewater and EOS have had to constantly engage the city council’s Smart and Sustainable City Committee to slow down the roll-out of new cameras in the city and protect the rights of constituents.

South Philadelphia's narrow streets and sidewalks have presented challenges to disabled individuals, even before the pandemic and the advent of outdoor dining.

Embry Wood Owen, a researcher and community organizer in Philadelphia, is addressing a different aspect of hostile architecture: the lack of accessibility in public spaces in the aftermath of COVID-19. Nonetheless, her work again demonstrates the power of public engagement to give a voice to underserved populations.

At the start of the pandemic, Owen got together with neighbors to form a support group to help disabled and immigrant communities in South Philly. It has now grown into a mutual aid network with dozens of volunteers providing 300 members with social, mental, and economic support and emergency relief. Owen is proud that her organization was able to build the trust necessary to allow these communities to advocate for themselves. "When the Emergency Housing Protection Act was on the table, the trust we had nurtured as a group allowed us to mobilize more than 50 people to engage council members to get them to vote ‘Yes,’" she says. This act, passed unanimously, extended the city’s eviction moratorium by over a month and provided safeguards for renters facing COVID-19-related hardships.

In her advocacy, Owen is also interested in exploring how today’s design interventions fail to meet the needs of certain populations. "Social distancing can be extremely difficult for disabled folks," she says. 

According to Owen, not only do wheelchair users find it challenging to navigate narrow sidewalks crowded with outdoor dining tables, but blind and low-vision people can find it impossible to follow social distancing cues that are visual, such as signs and markers on the ground. Other problems arise when local relief efforts don’t account for everyone they’re supposed to serve. "When the city established food pickup services, there were no delivery options for disabled people that couldn’t leave their homes alone," says Owen.

In Old City, Philadelphia, a street closed to vehicle traffic allows pedestrians to use the full length of the sidewalk and restaurant patrons to dine outdoors.

For her, the problem is not about what design can and can’t solve. Hostile architecture results from decision-making processes that don’t involve marginalized communities because they lack political, social, and educational opportunities.

Marissa Mead, director of art integration at Svigals + Partners, a Connecticut-based architecture studio, points to Baltimore’s Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook as an example of a well-integrated resource for non-hostile design interventions.

Curblet Commons by Graham Projects, submitted to the Design for Distancing guidebook, provides a blueprint for expanding curbsides to accommodate socially distanced outdoor activities in an ADA compliant manner.  

The City of Baltimore, along with The Baltimore Development Corporation, The Neighborhood Design Center, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, released the guidebook after evaluating multiple design proposals responding to the pandemic. They judged submissions on criteria prioritizing "physical distancing" instead of "social distancing," and sought to create inclusive, healthy, and equitable environments. These solutions will be deployed throughout small business districts in the city this summer.

"As municipalities plan for distancing, they must not forget the importance of social infrastructure in our communities," says Mead. "The more interaction that takes place in a community, the more neighbors come to know one another and look out for one another. The strength of a neighborhood’s interpersonal bonds has a direct relationship with how a community fares in times of crisis."

Mead’s teammate, Julia McFadden, associate principal at Svigals + Partners, acknowledges that while the psychology of influencing behavior through environmental cues is not well understood, hostile architecture often works against its own goals.

"The incongruity is that an environment that is uplifting and inviting actually deters more unwanted behavior than does an overtly hostile design," she says.

As one of the designers behind the new Sandy Hook Elementary School and a related memorial, the New Haven Botanical Garden of Healing, she has been forced to balance very serious threats to public security with the need to create welcoming environments that nurture a community traumatized by violence.

"An environment that is uplifting and inviting actually deters more unwanted behavior than does an overtly hostile design."

—Julia McFadden, Svigals + Partners

The playful and welcoming exterior of Svigals + Partners' design for the new Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It wasn’t too long ago that designers were suggesting dystopian and defensive solutions to school shootings, such as defensive furniture and bulletproof backpacks. By contrast, the resulting design that McFadden and her team unveiled for Sandy Hook Elementary takes no such stance—it’s simply a warm, well lit, inviting place that offers students, teachers, and staff green spaces, artwork, and comfort.

Nooks and crannies allow children to take a break from classes at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As we prepare to return to schools and offices marked by social-distancing design interventions, it’s important to maintain a critical eye. With the increasing prevalence of tracking technology and surveillance measures, it’s crucial to recognize when these interventions can become hostile. While it will be necessary to forgive, if not embrace, some of these changes—plexiglass dividers, impromptu barriers, and social-distancing cues among them—we need to remember the role that design has played in marginalizing communities in the past, and ensure that new concepts meet the needs of all people.

In Howell’s 2001 paper, he described how arguing with police, security guards, and concerned citizens about the meaning and purpose of public spaces was a kind of rite of passage for young skateboarders in the ’90s. These same kinds of conversations should take center stage within our communities today—and involve all sorts of constituents in order to ward off the harms that will inevitably come in a more surveilled and socially distanced future. 

Cover photo by Kirstin Heckmann via Unsplash

Related Reading: Just How Inclusive Is Accessible Design?


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