How Sneaky Cities Use Hostile Architecture To Hurt The Homeless

Spiked floors, narrow benches, late-night sprinklers and harsh lighting -- it's called hostile architecture, and it's targeting vulnerable homeless people worldwide.

To combat the issue of homeless people sleeping rough in public, many cities around Australia and the world are taking steps to make people feel less welcome, or at least less comfortable. You've probably noticed some of these design features in your town, described as "nasty" by social services and urban design experts, but never realised why they exist.

  • Cosy concealed corners or alcoves are being built with slanting surfaces, or embedded with spikes, to deter sleeping
  • Park or bus-stop benches are being constructed with narrow ledges not wide enough to support a lying body, or with handrails along the length to make sleeping uncomfortable
  • Harsh lighting and loud music is being splashed into dark quiet areas to flush out loiterers
  • Flat surfaces like window ledges or raised platforms are having uncomfortable metal nubs to make them unattractive for sleeping;
  • Water sprinklers are timed to activate late at night, discouraging people from camping out in parks.

They call it hostile architecture, and if you look around your city, you're likely to find some examples.

Spikes like this, in London, are designed to prevent homeless people sitting or sleeping Photo: Getty Images

The latest case study comes from Brisbane. Over the weekend, a camp of homeless people below a bridge were moved on by authorities; the area was filled with large rocks, according to The Guardian, to deter sleepers from returning.

"People experiencing homelessness have got a lot of challenges in their lives, and this just adds to the sense of social exclusion. If you don't have a home, you are forced into public spaces, and forcing people out of those makes them more vulnerable and just moves them to darker and less safe parts," Jenny Smith, CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, told 10 daily.

She is concerned that such architecture and design elements don't fix any problems around homelessness, and simply -- literally -- moves the problem out of sight.

Benches, like this one in Los Angeles, are being built with barriers along the length, to make sleeping difficult or uncomfortable (AP Photo/Greg Risling)

While social services are begging for more funding, more emergency accommodation and more public housing to combat Australia's growing homelessness problem, local councils are instead investing money into these elements only meant to make already vulnerable people even more isolated.

"Making people feel even more excluded is cruel," Smith said.

Professor Kim Dovey, the chair of architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne, said such 'hostile architecture' elements were common around the world, and many had been in place for years.

Cities like London and Montreal have come under fire for installing studs and spikes to deter homeless sleepers.

"Design can be used to stop things happening more easily than it can be used to make things happen," Dovey told 10 daily.

"If you want to stop someone sleeping on a seat, you put rails on regular intervals so they can't sleep. It can be done in a way so it doesn't look hostile."

Dovey said he could understand on some level why business owners might use such design elements to deter rough sleepers from frequenting their premises, but also said he felt uncomfortable about the concept.

Anti-homeless spikes and rough surfaces installed in a luxury housing complex to deter homeless people around the Limehouse Basin marina in London,UK. Photo: Getty Images

Daniel Scoullar is the director of Social Change Projects, an organisation working with housing and social welfare organisations nationwide. He said it was unfair for councils to target homeless people in such a direct way.

"We have anti-discrimination laws to protect vulnerable people and planning laws should do the same. Our public places should be places for everyone, not just the well-off."

Scoullar said people need to remember that homeless people aren't occupying public spaces because they want to.