Hostile City

Hostile architecture is familiar to most people as dramatic instances of anti-homelessness spikes, sprinkler systems, or directional speakers. These devices are placed outside shops and businesses to discourage people who sleep in the street from choosing this particular nook to shelter in, or to prevent teenagers from gathering.

Egregious examples garner some bad press, and the business either removes the implements or defies the criticism; but either way the story is soon forgotten about.

In reality, these instances only make up a very small proportion of hostile architecture: architecture that shapes and controls our public space and our behaviour within it. Forms of it are so ubiquitous and part of the urban scenery that they can be easy to miss, or dismiss. The little bumps outside the shops in Grafton Street are only muted, stylised anti-homelessness devices. Windowsills with decorative spikes, and doorways with art deco gates, take away the only free shelter from rain or place to sit. Graffiti replaced with advertising. Vacant, unoccupied plazas where handrails and steps are embedded with metal to prevent the use of skateboards or rollerblades. Benches at bus stops that are designed with a slope, intended to make them uncomfortable to sit on for any length of time. Benches in streets, where benches can be found, split with arm rests or gaps or bars, to create distance and an impossibility of lying down. The lack of free public facilities such as toilets forces people to pay for service in a shop or café to get access to these things.

Outside the cities, most hostile architecture has long been used to punish or inhibit the comfort and life quality of members of the Travelling community. Bollards placed at long-standing halting sites, areas of land covered over with boulders and rock debris to prevent stopping, the denial of access to water, electricity or basic sanitation at a site, and, in the most extreme and hate-filled cases, the intentional sabotage or removal of previously available facilities.

Hostile architecture in these cases is overt in its desire to strip a people of their humanity, the goal being to make them go, move, shift to somewhere else, preferably out of sight. The long-term result is the destruction of the culture and the alienation and social isolation of those who won’t assimilate into settled culture.

Hostile architecture intentionally inhibits the creation of community and shared space; instead it promotes an environment that serves business and profit. The use of this form of architecture reduces a cityscape to one that funnels commuters and consumers (rather than citizens) from business to business, to work or to spend money in. This under a capitalist system is deemed the most efficient and productive use of space.

It is not the physical architecture alone that creates this hostile environment but the infrastructure of the city itself, with transport routes, lighting and plant life and green areas, or lack thereof, all playing a part.

O’Connell Street in Dublin is a fine example of hostile architecture in action. This is a central thoroughfare in the city where it is not possible or comfortable to spend any time without engaging with consumerism. There is nowhere to sit or to rest, no way to enjoy the area or to take care of any human need without cold, hard cash available. As a result of this, the area has become rife with anti-social behaviour, and the atmosphere in the evenings can be openly hostile unless a person is seeking sanctuary in a place of business.

This hostile atmosphere disproportionately affects all minority groups and women and places them at risk of harassment, both verbal and physical. Studies conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality confirm that working-class women in general, but particularly those in service roles, rely on public transport to travel to cities and towns, their area of work. Men are statistically more likely to be drivers, while women are more likely to use pavements, cycle paths, and public transport.

Women still do most of the maintenance of the home, such as laundry and shopping, as well as child-rearing, which includes ferrying children to and from school, appointments, and visits to friends and family. Women by and large spend more time using public space, because of their work both in and outside the private home; and these public spaces should be designed with them and their needs in mind. Instead cities can be difficult, or nigh on impossible, to traverse by wheelchair, for those with mobility difficulties, or with a pram or small child. There is nowhere to safely and comfortably nurse, change nappies, or have access to toilets; and women who can avoid the streets and public spaces at night do so, because of the danger that lurks there.

While men are more likely to be attacked in the street, it is women who have been taught to fear them, to know that these spaces are not built for them. This sentiment has been continuously challenged since the 1970s with the likes of Take Back the Night marches.

At present most architects, city and transport planners and policy-makers are still men, and this influences how they view the needs of a population moving through the city. These men end up giving priority to people like themselves: affluent men who drive and have limited requirements for public space. When they do have to interact with it they wish it to be devoid of anyone they might deem a nuisance or unsightly.

But this facilitating of a particular class of men has costs, both financial and social. Stockholm, for example, began engaging in “gender-equal” snow-clearing. This meant that paths, cycle lanes and public transport routes were given priority over roads for the clearing of snow. This need was argued on the grounds that the majority of the population rely on these routes, this majority including those who don’t work outside the home as well as children, the disabled, and the elderly—people who hadn’t been considered previously.

As a result, the city was made safer for working-class people, women and children in particular, with accidents decreasing by half and the local government being spared these costs.

Architecture and infrastructure under a capitalist system do not allow for any neutral space. No design or choice is accidental but is carefully constructed to serve a cause, making each and every inch of public space and public land a battlefield of ideology. While Dublin is not as hostile as the likes of Los Angeles, yet with the threatened loss of our cultural spaces, the invasion of hotels, unaffordable homes and hostile architecture becoming more pervasive, it’s only a matter of time before we end up with a city sanitised of any of the complications and complexities of humanity.

Small victories in these areas may not shake the capitalist class to their core, but they make our lives more livable, and that is worth celebrating.