Exclusionary Architecture: How Design Interventions in Public Spaces are Dismissing the Homeless
Social responsibility and the desire to improve society has long been influenced by the built environment. Looking at city centers, architecture has contributed to the improvement of the urban fabric, whether it is through planning and zoning strategies, integration of public spaces, or small interventions. In some cases however, these interventions are in fact used as tools to keep the homeless off the streets, disguised as art or conceptual designs. Several public urban policies have all implicitly prohibited the homeless and other marginalized social groups from city centers, claiming that their presence and “irregular” use of public space could compromise the reputation, security, and desirability of the city.
Inaccessible and unaffordable housing conditions are some of the biggest contributors to the downward spiral of homelessness. On several occasions, governments have explained that such conditions have been affecting the population as a whole, and not just those without permanent housing. In European countries, 82 million people are affected by the housing overburden rate, meaning that they spend over 40% of their disposable income on housing costs. And while house prices are constantly on the rise, incomes are still stagnant. The bigger concern is the staggering rate of homlessness. A report by the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa) and the French Abbe Pierre Foundation showed the skyrocketing homelessness rates across Europe, with the highest rates being 169% in England, 150% in Germany and 145% in Ireland.
For the homeless, public spaces are a refuge. Marginalized people rest on benches, under bridges, on the sidewalks, begging or just sitting there as they do not have the means to linger in a private space. These public spaces, regardless of their form, scale, or location, become their temporary homes in which they settle throughout the night.
Architecture and Homelessness: What Approaches Have We Seen?
While many put the blame on urban planners and/or architects for creating such “hostile” interventions, exclusivist trends in urban policies fall in the hands of public authorities, as they carry the responsibilities of depriving their citizens of proper housing, continuous welfare failures, and reinforcing distorted market-oriented practices. Often, urban policy strategies tend to exclude the homeless from public spaces or limit how they use them, although it is their legal duty to provide all members of the community with shelter. According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “states must, regardless of their state of development, take certain steps to realize the right to adequate housing immediately and that in this respect priority must be given to those social groups living in unfavorable conditions – such housing must be safe, adequate and affordable to the concerned person or family, and also ensure sufficient privacy.”
Yet, the relationship between homeless people and urban public space remains controversial. Over the past couple of decades, public spaces have experienced considerable “anti-homeless” developments, particularly with the rise of privatized zones in terms of image, safety, aesthetics, and policy: fortifications of public lands, development of gated communities, etc. In New York, narrow leaning bars were added to Bay Ridge’s 53rd station instead of regular benches “to conserve space”, lacking support for those who are elderly, injured, or homeless. Beneath the Huangshi highway in Guangzhou, China, nearly 200 square meters of concrete spikes are added to prevent the homeless from using the bridge as shelter.
Similarly in Accra, Ghana, hundreds of jagged rocks were added beneath highways and bridges to prevent the homeless from sleeping there. Cities across Europe have added small metallic studs and bollards on retail stores’ window display steps, preventing anyone from sitting there. Many cities in the United Kingdom have installed metal bars on benches to prevent homeless from sleeping on them, and making it more difficult for the public to use in general, while in Russia, municipalities have added locks to public benches, folding and locking them at night.
While living conditions of the homeless have been thoroughly examined and researched, not much has been done to provide them with a sustainable solution. Primarily, an in-depth analysis of the real causes of homelessness is crucial in designing appropriate policy measures, as many are often disregarded or misinterpreted. For instance, one of the most common beliefs is that homelessness is the result of individual challenges rather than inequalities in housing policies, public services, and employment. The Human Rights Council and all its States have made an international commitment to eliminate homelessness by adopting the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, agreeing to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services, and upgrade slums” by 2030 .
Perhaps the most obvious solution to homelessness is solving the housing crisis, whether it’s through collective housing units and shelters, temporary emergency shelters allow the homeless to be sheltered and have a safe place to stay for a few nights, reinforcing laws that put a benchmark on prices, implementing “parasitic housing” that latches onto existing structures, or permanent supportive housing. These solutions must be done in a coordinated, community-wide approach, and not just acupunctural interventions.
Looking at the situation from another perspective, urban planners can actually gain insights from the homeless in regards to how the city is functioning and how its urban planning is contributing to the betterment of the community. Living on the street demands a very good understanding of the “underbelly of the city”. Having created their own habitats in the narrow city streets and public spaces, the homeless were able to forge their own units, relationships, systems, and survival strategies, rationally choosing where to settle to ensure survival. While the collective perception of the homeless is viewed as “those others”, they are in fact essential members of the community.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; If you want to submit an article or project, contact us.