Theft and vandalism are not uncommon in our world, though theft of public property is a bit more rare. That was the charge two men in France found themselves facing in 2018. They had removed several of a particular item from a public park. The targets were benches, not the benches themselves, but the arm rests that had recently been added. They didn’t need armrests at home, they weren’t going to sell the metal for scrap, so why remove them? So people experiencing homelessness could sleep on them again. My name’s…
Interesting design changes have been popping up in major cities over the past few decades. It’s all around you and you’ve probably never noticed it. Benches made for leaning rather than sitting, tall bumps in the pavement under overhangs, dog-sized rocks under overpasses. Proponents say this type of urban design is necessary to help maintain order, ensure safety and curb unwanted behavior such as loitering or skateboarding. There are more examples than I could hope to list today. If you’re in the UK, you may have seen Camden Benches, named for the Camden borough of London that commissioned them. They look like modern art, swoopy and sloping in places, angular in others. The design isn’t pro-aesthetic, it’s anti-things. Anti- skateboarding because the lack of straight edges means you can’t grind on it. Anti-drug dealing from it’s lack of crevices to stash things. Anti-theft, because the only place to put your bag is in a recess behind your legs. anti-graffiti because it has a special coating to repel paint. And, important to today’s topic, anti-sleeping. These things won’t affect your workaday world, unless you’re experiencing homelessness. In that case, this “defensive architecture,” or more aptly “hostile architecture,” makes a bad situation worse. FYI, today’s topic was voted on by our patreons and it’s going to be a bit of a bummer at first, but I promise the episode ends with hope and positivity.
Hostile architecture goes well beyond benches you can’t skate or sleep on and it’s seemingly everywhere. New York City’s long-famed Strand Bookstore installed sprinklers under their iconic awning to spray people seeking shelter under it, like an evil, capitalist produce mister. In early 2018, a homeless camp full of men, women, and children was cleared out by police action, only to be replaced by a set of 18 bicycle racks.. in an area where nobody really rides bikes. A 7-Eleven store in Portland made headlines recently when it blared a high-pitch sound similar to an alarm outside the store. In Boston, the Transportation Authority installed armrests on benches at T stops, claiming it was for the benefit of the elderly and disabled.
Proponents call it defensive or ‘crime prevention through environmental design’,” she says. Catchy phrase? Handy because that’s the url of a website all about it [Timothy] “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design is a multi-disciplinary approach of crime prevention that uses urban and architectural design and the management of built and natural environments. CPTED strategies aim to reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas, reduce crime, and minimize fear of crime.”
That’s certainly one point of view. For balance, let’s turn to architectural historian and a clinical associate professor at New York University, Jo Ritter, [Dustin] “We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life. What is hostile to some is defensive to others.”
California is a particularly nasty offender in the game of hostile architecture, and it is an offense felt by the people who experience homelessness all over the state. Under cover of darkness, literally, San Francisco took all the benches out of the Civic Central Plaza in the 1990s and the United Nations Plaza in 2001. While it does discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping in the plazas, it also means that the people who go there during the day have nowhere to , leaving nowhere to sit during the day for many of the plazas’ daily visitors and nowhere to sleep at night for those seeking refuge in a formerly accessible space. San Francisco also sees widespread use of “pee-proof” paint on buildings and structures to deter public urination. So if you’re a drunk frat boy kicked out of the bar at last call or a person sleeping rough and you pee on one of these buildings, the special paint makes it splach back on your legs and feet. The state capital of Sacramento faces its own troubles with defensive architecture, and many seem to believe that these design choices affect all members of the public, not just homeless people.
“Our downtown has incorporated hostile designs and practices, such as removing benches outside the library, erecting fencing to keep people out of alcoves, turning off all the water faucets, turning on sprinklers odd hours at parks, just some examples, all to discourage homeless people and loitering,” said Paula Lomazzi, the director of Sacramento’s street paper Homeward Street Journal. “What they have done affects everyone, making downtown uncomfortable for everyone, including shoppers.”
Philadelphia’s Love Park, located in the heart of the city, underwent a rather long, $26 million renovation, unveiled in 2018 and claiming to be designed as “more accessible and inclusive”. The new benches installed in the beloved attraction are curved and slotted, metal bars dividing them into sections. While there has been a public outcry against some of the redesign, as it looks to the eye to be designed for keeping homeless people out of the public eye, the city remains steadfast in its support for what it believes is a more inclusive design. In an interview, a city spokesperson maintained that the whole area was now more open and inviting because barrier walls had been removed and anyway, that’s the same bench design that’s used in other city parks. Yeah, just because there’s more of it doesn’t make it okay. She then pointed out that the bigger issue should be alleviating homeless and bragged about the city’s welcoming attitude instead of saying anything about how the housing remediation situation might be going. In case there’s a little Ebeneezer Scrooge voice in your head saying that the homeless should just sleep in shelters, people experiencing homelessness often feel safer spending a night in the open than in a shelter and daytime services are not always accessible, so neither do they have a place during the long days.
The question cities have to answer is, who is the public space for? Who counts as the public? Who are we welcoming and who are we excluding? When the city adds spikes to the cement of an already hard and uncomfortable sidewalk that once laid flat, it says to the person who needed to sit there, “You are not welcome here”. It makes the message rather clear. It does not need words on a sign, only metal and concrete instead. According to Dr Ainslie Murray, Senior Lecturer in Architecture at U of New South Wales Built Environment, even if the goal of installing hostile architecture in public space is to control crime or antisocial behaviour, the impacts are extensive and could outweigh any benefits. “Take, for example, the benches that you can’t quite sit on. Sure, people can’t sleep on them or make permanent homes on them, but neither can elderly people, frail people, people with disability, pregnant women or children actually sit down,” she says. “The fallout is much broader than just limiting the group of people that may have initially challenged that space in the beginning, and so it does become a more significant equity issue.”
Hostile architecture deflects responsibility from dealing with the root cause of social and economic issues such as homelessness. There are instances in which public organizing against this type of design has been successful. When anti-homeless spikes were installed in Montréal, the outcry was so loud that the city removed them almost instantly, reopening that sidewalk space to whoever may need it. In Iowa City, local organizers rallied around a call for the removal of benches with armrests in the center, allowing for several to be replaced with benches without armrests; benches where someone, who might need to, can lie down and sleep.
One man in particular has decided not to be silent when he sees hostile architecture. Well, literally, what he does is silent and probably surreptitiously. That man is UK artist Stuart Semple. Semple has a low tolerance for selfish BS, but more on that for a minute. “Hostile design is design that intends to restrict freedom or somehow control a human being — be that homeless people, a skater or everyday humans congregating to enjoy themselves,” Semple told Hyperallergic. “The danger of hostile design is it’s so insidious. It’s so quiet, so camouflaged, that unless you know what it is, you accept it. And that blind acceptance makes things grow and spread.”
Moved to action by the installation of unsightly bars on benches in his hometown, Semple launched a series of stickers. Okay, when you say it out loud, it’s a little anti-climactic, but it’s about sending a message. The “Design Crime” are for anyone who feels the spirit move them tag hostile architecture to make it more obvious to people who might not otherwise think of it. You can see them on Insta tagged #HostileDesign, which is also the website, hostiledesign.org. He’s capitalizing on it? Not really. He just asks for 50 pence (to cover printing) or a pound (to cover free sets for others).
Thanks to a petition sparked by Semple’s photos and signed by nearly 20,000 protesters, the local Borough Council has since announced it is removing divider bars from public benches. “We’re totally over the moon,” said Semple of the news. He cites this victory as a great example of what can happen “when the community comes together” and “gets behind something.” While he’s sure to point out on the website that he doesn’t condone vandalism, Semple encourages people to tag hostile designs to start discussions among urban activists and planners, in turn leading to more inclusive and welcoming public space design.
And Semple’s aversion to selfishness? Semple is probably best known for the pigments he’s created, like the pinkest pink. Semple created it in response to another artist, Anish Kapoor, who created the blackest black paint (aka Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96% of light) and denied anyone else from using it. Semple disagreed with this move, so he created the pinkest pink in protest, allowing it to be used by anyone except Kapoor. When you buy it, you have to sign a piece of paper saying that: “You are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.” Kapoor however did get hold of some of the pinkest pink, painted his middle finger with it and posted a picture on Instagram mocking Semple. Classy.
If you’d like something with a bit more flower power, you can swap your stickers for seeds and join the guerilla gardening movement. [sfx gorilla] You know damn well that’s not what I meant. It can be as simple as planting some sunflowers on railroad ties, chucking a homemade seed ball out of the window while driving on the freeway, or embellishing a tree pit with wildflowers. A project becomes “guerrilla” as soon as it occupies land (typically publicly-owned) that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to tend. Some guerrilla gardeners paint the walls in a slurry of moss and buttermilk, which in turn blossoms into green graffiti. Others descended upon old magazine bins and filled them up with daisies. The movement is so wide-ranging that the first day of May each year– which is now known as International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. Sorry I didn’t learn about it in time to tell you, but there’s always next year [sfx set calendar reminder].
The genesis of the modern movement is generally said to have begun the Bowery in the Lower East Side of NYC, when a woman named Liz Christy, fed up with the lack of green space in her neighborhood, began planting window boxes and lobbing “seed grenades” – biodegradable balloons filled with tomato seeds and fertilizer – into vacant lots and other spaces. Such techniques became known as “guerrilla gardening”: the conscious choice to plant flowers where they didn’t belong, to bring beauty to ugly, old spaces – and to breathe new life into community spaces that had fallen into disrepair as a result of civic neglect. One day in 1973, she and some like-minded folks got the city to agree to let them plant on a large, dirty abandoned lot, a project that would come to be the first-of-its-kind “Bowery Houston Farm and Garden.”
While breathing life and color intro drab, dirty urban landscapes is not without merit, there’s more to guerilla gardening than flowers. The movement also seeks to terraform food deserts. If you don’t know what a food desert is, you’re probably in the more fortunate 73.5% of the Americans who don’t live in one. A food desert is an area in which people have limited access to healthy food. This is commonly seen in socio-economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods that tend not to have grocery stores. What fresh produce you can get in shops is sparse and often of poorer quality than in the ‘burbs. Many food-desert-dwellers also rely on public transportation, so they face long and inconvenient travel times, during which they’re limited in how much food they can carry, assuming the bus even goes to any good stores. Covid lockdown made the situation all the worse. Food deserts can co-exist with food swamps, where there is technically plenty of food, but healthy it is not; think convenience stores and fast food as the only option.
California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit devoted to the issue, estimates that 42% of low-income adults in Los Angeles lack regular access to fresh, healthy food (a disturbingly majority of them children). In the food desert of South Los Angeles, resident and fashion designer Ron Finley made headlines in 2013 when he decided to do something about it. Finley began planting vegetables near a sidewalk and street outside of his home. Before long, the neglected dirt bore sprouts, then shoots, then fruits. As the months passed, neighbors and passerby began to notice his urban garden, fragrant and overflowing with flowers and vegetables. Sometimes, the neighbors would take samples with them; Finley awoke one night to find a mother and child sneaking tomatoes from the vine. And that’s when his gardening project took on a whole new meaning. In a matter of months, Finley had sparked a revolution, and began to spread the gospel of the garden – to his neighbors, to visitors, and most importantly, to the kids.[Najee] “We need to teach our kids that Gardening is Gangsta,” he said with a laugh. Finley had a “gangsta” moment not long after he planted his garden, when the city issued him a citation for gardening without a permit, claiming that there were laws banning anything by trees and lawn from being planted in the area. Finley fought back when he found that the city owned 26 square miles of vacant lot space, enough area to plant one billion tomato plants, and it was just sitting there, not producing anything and encouraging dumping and neglect. After hearing his argument, the City is now in the process of changing the old laws and to allow citizens to grow fruits and vegetables near sidewalks. Side note, not that they need promotion from my little show, but 99% Invisible did a great episode one why there is no shade in LA and you should definitely check it out.
Speaking of other fascinating podcasts, this week’s episode is sponsored by
Guerilla gardening spread or cropped up, npi, in other major cities and the cities have taken notice. Baltimore, for instance, has the “Adopt a Lot” program, which auctions off abandoned land to potential gardeners. In San Francisco, there’s a generous tax break for property owners who are willing to convert their unused plots into farms. Guerrilla gardening isn’t just a US phenomenon. Take Hong Kong, for example, where in the 1990s, the city produced about 30% of its own fruits and vegetables, but today, because of the availability of imported food, that percentage has dropped to less than 3%. The Hong Kong government no longer sees a need for urban gardens or vast expanses of greenery and they’ve even run TV PSAs, warning citizens that it is illegal to sow seeds in undesignated planting areas. If you nevertheless persist in your planting, the city might very well show up and rip out all your plants. But the desire to have healthy food and a healthier city is deeply-rooted in the hearts of some who turn to rooftop gardening. Everything from mangoes to peppers can be grown in these gardens, and the city generally doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
If this segment has gotten your green thumb itching, please bear in mind two things, nothing on this podcast constitutes legal advice or opinion, and running around town doing your best Johnny Appleseed cosplay and planting seeds on land that doesn’t belong to you may be outright illegal. There are cities and towns, like LA, with laws that specifically prohibit planting, so many guerilla gardeners do their planting under cover of darkness. That being said, you don’t have to break any laws to participate in other forms of guerrilla gardening. Take a walk around your neighborhood and note any empty patches of dirt. Maybe a tree pit needs a little help, or perhaps a patch of grass could use some flowers. Try contacting your municipal authority to find out if there are already empty plots of land that could use a few flowers or plants. If the unused land is on private property, try asking the owner if you can spruce it up for them for free. Hey, you don’t ask, you don’t get, and they may like the idea of their property being beautified at no cost to them.
But my favorite example of guerrilla gardening was largely unintentional. “Just junk, just continual junk.” That’s how resident Dan Stevenson described the median/island at the corner of 11th Avenue and East 19th Street in Oakland, California. “Mattresses, tables. “A lot of graffiti, a lot of urination and drug use kind of thing,” which fit in nicely with the liet motif of the potholes.” Back in 2009, Stevenson was practically on a first name basis with the city public works department. Even when the city would come to clean up the junk, it was clear they were bailing the ocean, because more trash would appear, often within a day. Then Stevenson had a different idea after his wife came home from their local hardware store with a little cement state of Buddha. He glued the statue to a rock in the median so no one would steal it, or at the very least, they’d have to put some effort into it. Maybe if there was something nice in the median, he reasoned, people wouldn’t leave so many soiled mattresses and delaminated flat-pack tables with broken legs. Worst case scenario, the city would remove it during a trash pick-up and he’d have to buy another statue.
And it worked. The rate at which garbage accumulated near what would come to be called the Buddha of Oakland slowed right down, eventually all but stopping. Then, about a year later, other things began to appear on the median. Where there had been fast food trash, there were flowers. Where there had been torn garbage bags, there was fruit. And eventually, where there had been decay and disrepair, there were people, praying. Oakland has a sizable Vietnamese population and that little hardware store statue had become the focal point of an ad hoc shrine.
The Buddha statue and the area around him were adopted by the local Vietnamese immigrant community, especially a woman named Vina Vo, who grew up in a village called Quang Ngai and would walk to the local temple with her grandmother each morning to pray and recite traditional Buddhist mantras. Then, the war happened, what we call the Vietnam war and they rightly call the American war. When South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam in 1975, many of the houses in Vo’s village were burned, including hers, as was the temple. In 1982, Vina, her husband and brother left Vietnam on a small boat with three dozen other people, eventually finding their way to Oakland.
In 2010, a community member at the Vietnamese church told Vina about a Buddha that had been placed on a corner just blocks from her house. He suggested maybe she could care for the statue and its little island, and care for it she did. With the help of friends and family, they made the median into a proper shrine. They built a wooden structure to protect the Buddha and put up two flags: one American, one Buddhist. A little tape recorder that plays chants while the smoke from incense curls up into the air. That statue itself was painted and given brown hair and red and gold robes. Shrines and temples in Vietnam also serve as community meeting places and this one is no exception. Not everyone in the area is thrilled with it, though. Many people who pray at the shrine first thing in the morning also tap wooden sticks while they chant. Neighbors call it the “Buddhist alarm clock.” But they appreciate the shrine. After all, a few loud prayers are a small price to pay to transform a dumping site in an intersection into a beautiful, maintained, enriching asset for the community.
And that…According to one of the men, “We cannot consider removing [the armrests] as helping out homeless people because letting them sleep on a bench is not really helping.” They were convicted of stealing public property but walked free after convincing a judge that their behaviour was aimed at highlighting a social problem. They same man found it ironic to be convicted of stealing from the public when the authorities have used taxpayers’ money to restrict some peoples access to the public benches. “So who really stole the public property?” he asked. “I think not us.”
Thanks to our guest quote-readers