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One Last Thing: Hostile Architecture

Yesterday’s public-safety measure has become today’s assault on the underclass.

By Michael Fitzgerald


An artist named Sarah Ross created jogging suits affixed with large foam blocks to allow wearers to comfortably recline on segmented park benches and other street furniture designed to deter Los Angeles’ homeless. (Photo: Bryan Anton)

In the summer of 2014, a picture of anti-homeless spikes flanking the entrance to an upscale apartment tower in London sparked worldwide backlash: Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, called the spikes “ugly, self-defeating, and stupid”; Slate called them “inelegant and heartless.” A petition for their removal garnered over 120,000 signatures within a week. Outrage over so-called hostile architecture — design elements that discourage loiterers, scofflaws, and the homeless — persists on progressive blogs and message boards.

Hostile architecture is at least as old as China’s Great Wall, but the public’s loathing for it is relatively new, memorably articulated in Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, which heralded a “new class war … at the level of the built environment.” Davis’ polemic excoriated decades of privatization of L.A.’s public spaces and the use of physical deterrents like concrete barriers around tower bases to cordon the city.


A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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Criminologist C. Ray Jeffery might be the godfather of these militaristic touches. “In order to change criminal behavior we must change the environment,” Jeffery wrote in an influential 1971 book describing his theory of crime prevention through design, which inspired a generation of city planners to create public spaces that felt more like private property. Subtle techniques, like adding more streetlights and shrubs, were soon deployed in public-housing projects nationwide.

But yesterday’s public-safety measure has become today’s assault on the underclass. With the rise of gated residential communities and new funding to revive downtown business districts in the 1990s came a new industry of security professionals who focused exclusively on so-called target-hardening tools, like anti-homeless spikes, security guards, and cameras. Research is inconclusive on whether these efforts actually prevent crime. One thing is certain: Each era gets the architecture it deserves.