The View From Here – Hostile architecture creates an institutionalized hostility towards the homeless

Tom Henihan

The term “hostile architecture” applies to the construction or modification of communal urban environments with the sole intention of designing these areas to be un-amenable for the homeless to linger, keep warm or God forbid sleep.

Manifestations of hostile architecture are now frequently cropping up in civic spaces, bus and subway transit areas, sidewalks and public parks.

These heartless, anti-social installations come in all shapes and sizes, such as center armrests on park benches to prevent people from stretching out and sleeping.

Other hostile strategies are spikes on flat surfaces, undulating and sloped seating in public spaces or any other trick to ensure that those who need the smallest of accommodations do not find any.

Sometimes a great deal of negative resourcefulness goes into these hostile designs.

To give these fixtures a benign, integrated appearance the motif is often avant-garde or modernist but there is nothing modernist or progressive about this weaponized architecture.

Its twisted insiration is rooted in contempt for the poor.

Hostile architecture implies that public space is only for a certain segment of the public and while it is acceptable to sit and rest, it is offensive to sleep.

A recent contentious case was the Toronto General Hospital installing a grid of irregularly shaped metal bars over a warm air vent at the entrance to the hospital’s emergency department.

Homeless people used the vent to keep warm and maybe get some sleep while exposed to the weather, but the hospital, contrary to its role of providing care, installed the metal grid to deprive the needy of this small comfort.

Fortunately, there are people who don’t mind sharing their everyday environment and public spaces with others.

They do not begrudge a homeless person the opportunity to keep warm and get some rest.

It is also a good thing that many of these people are vocal in expressing their outrage at this despicable and increasingly common practice, a practice that is especially offensive for a hospital to engage in.

Following a week of relentless criticism from individuals and advocates for the homeless, Toronto General Hospital relented and removed the metal bars from the vent, not because it admitted to being callous and morally wrong, but because it was on the wrong side of public opinion.

Evidently, it is effective to admonish institutions and municipalities that install hostile fixtures in public spaces. They need to know that this is discrimination, a form of apartheid imposed on the poor and homeless.

Homeless people are citizens, they are full members of society who are entitled to use public spaces, even if the manner in which they use those spaces is somewhat different to the “norm.”

When considering the behaviour of Toronto General Hospital as an institution we should also consider our own behaviour as individuals.

It could be enlightening to dwell on the design of our own attitude and demeanour and identify the integrated, benign, yet somewhat hostile mechanisms we use to discourage the indigent and homeless from approaching us for help.


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