So often we hear, with regard to cities, terms like “livable,” “sustainable,” “green,” “resilient,” and more recently, “smart,” spreading promise of a city as the ideal model for humanity’s urban dwellers. We are fed dreams of a self-aware, self-sustaining, self-mending, ecological, and egalitarian urban paradise. But livable, green, sustainable, and smart for whom, exactly? And, at what cost? And whose? If the city of the future can’t better the lives of those most in need—those without homes—then how do we measure its success? Despite many well-intended “quality of life” advancements made through urban design, separate infrastructures are put into place to explicitly degrade the lives of the city’s already poorest. And the architectural surface often has to deliver the message.
Architecture is a prism for pondering more than design. It is the dominant means by which humanity’s landscapes are formatted for social life. We are a social species, but perhaps more than that, we are a spatial species; and ultimately, because of these relations, a political one, too. While architecture is our interface with the earth, it is also the dimension through which we interact with each other and organize (and are organized by) larger systems of political, legal, and economic class structuring. Since so very few have a hand in actually shaping the city, most people are captives of the spaces they inhabit and subjects of their categorical powers and biases. Many more are even fiercely excluded from participating at all in the city’s making.
Architecture alone has never produced a truly egalitarian society, and perhaps there can never be true equality without an absolute recalibration of the spatial. In fact, from the urban poor’s perspective, you could say architecture is a kind of warfare through other means; at times a bureaucratic leviathan of segregation and incarceration, and at others blunt force trauma to the head. It only makes sense that many scholars and activists today are working together to further social movements already afoot within the evolving framework of “spatial justice.”
At the very least, the issue of anti-homeless design does occasionally turn up in the news. In London last year, locals found spikes placed in the ground near an upscale real estate development to ward off rough sleepers. Days later, activists dumped concrete over them and they were never replaced. More recently, in Manchester, barbs were installed alongside the sidewalks of a high-end shopping mall to discourage loitering. Photos taken by activists went viral and led to their removal. Last year in France, right wing officials in Angouleme installed cages over city-center benches on Christmas Eve to expel the homeless. From Wales to Vienna, cages are erected near heat exhausts where the homeless seek warmth. Tokyo has long been known to deploy similar tactics. But now cities all over the world are practicing their own brand of “defensive,” or “disciplinary” design. These sorts of cruel strategies are hardly anything new to cities in the US. They date back to at least the 1980s, when these architectural irritants started to crop up in places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, when the deflation in federal affordable housing budgets led to an increase in homelessness, but they probably originate with the entrenchment of urban poverty after the Vietnam War.