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Doors Open, But The Welcome Mat Is Gone

There is a dichotomy between DoorsOpenTO and the City's use of defensive architecture. This weekend, the City of Toronto makes an event out of opening its doors to the public. At the same time, the city installs and supports the installation of defensive or hostile architecture designed to shoo people away.

“Making our urban environment hostile

breeds hardness and isolation.

It makes life a little uglier for all of us.”

Here are 10 tales – short stories that highlight the social and emotional impact of hostile architecture in urban centres around the world.

Part 1 -

"Sleeping rough opened my eyes to the city's barbed cruelty."

From protrusions on ledges to metal park benches with solid dividers, from water sprinklers to loud muzak, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.

We see these measures all the time within our urban environments, from Toronto or Tokyo, but we fail to process their true intent.

"I hardly noticed them before I became homeless in 2009."

An economic crisis, a death in the family, a sudden breakup and an even more sudden breakdown were all it took to go from a six-figure income to sleeping rough in the space of a year.

It was only then that I started scanning my surroundings with the distinct purpose of finding shelter and the city’s barbed cruelty became clear."

Part 2 -

“When you’re designed against, you know it,” says Ocean Howell, who teaches architectural history at the University of Oregon, speaking about anti-skateboarding designs.

“Other people might not see it, but you will. The message is clear:

"You are not a member of the public.

At least not of the public that is welcome here.”

The same is true of all defensive architecture. The psychological effect is devastating.

There is a wider problem, too. These measures do not and cannot distinguish the “vagrant” posterior from others considered more deserving.

When we make it impossible for the dispossessed to rest their weary bodies at a bus shelter, we also make it impossible for the elderly, for the infirm, for the pregnant woman who has had a dizzy spell.

By making the city less accepting of the human frame, we make it less welcoming to all humans. By making our environment more hostile, we become more hostile within it.

Part 3 -

Hostile architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process.

It is a sort of unkindness that is considered,

designed, approved, funded and made real

with the explicit motive to exclude and harass.

It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of private and public, of necessity and property.

Pavement sprinklers have been installed by buildings, including at this San Francisco church. They spray the homeless intermittently, soaking them and their possessions.

The assertion is clear: the public thoroughfare in front of a building belongs to the building’s occupant, even when it is not being used.

Part 4 -

Sculptor Fabian Brunsing brought a satirical eye to the issue by creating the “pay bench”, an art installation of a park bench that retracts its metal spikes for a limited time when the prospective sitter feeds it a coin.

Completely missing the joke, Chinese officials thought that this was a great idea and installed similar benches in Yantai Park of the Shangdong province.

Part 5 -

The architecture of our cities is a powerful guide to behaviour, both directly and in its symbolism.

A symbol of a government saying they are a part of the people, one of the very first acts of the newly elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was to remove the metal barriers between the Hellenic parliament and Syntagma Square.

The effect on the centre of Athens of the removal of this barricade – which represented the strife of the last few years – was almost magical, as if an entire city breathed a sigh of relief.

The symbolism of a government saying that they were a part of the people, rather than apart from the people, was understood by all.

Part 6 -

Artist Nils Norman has been documenting the phenomenon of defensive architecture since the late 90s with thousands of photographs.

He writes,

“Recently, as I walked into my local bakery, a homeless man (whom I had seen a few times before) asked whether I could get him something to eat. When I asked Ruth – one of the young women who work behind the counter – to put a couple of pasties in a separate bag and explained why, her censure was severe: “He probably makes more money than you from begging, you know,” she said, bluntly.

He probably didn’t. Half his face was covered with sores. A blackened, gangrenous-looking toe protruded from a hole in his ancient shoe. His left hand looked mangled and was covered in dry blood from some recent accident or fight.

I pointed this out. Ruth was unmoved by my protestations. “I don’t care,” she said. "They’re a menace. Animals.”

It’s precisely this viewpoint that hostile architecture upholds. That the destitute are a different species altogether; inferior and responsible for their demise. Like pigeons to be shooed away; urban foxes disturbing our slumber with their screams.

“Shame on you,” jumped in Libby, the older lady who works at the bakery. “That is someone’s son you’re talking about.”

Part 7 -

We curse the destitute for urinating in public spaces with no thought about how far the nearest free public toilet might be. We blame them for their poor hygiene without questioning the lack of public facilities for washing.

Wilful misconceptions about homelessness abound. For instance, that shelters are plentiful and sleeping rough is a lifestyle choice. Free shelters, unless one belongs to a particularly vulnerable group, are actually extremely rare. Getting a bed often depends on a referral from a local agency, which, in turn, depends on being able to prove a local connection.

For the majority of homeless people, who have usually graduated from a life as itinerant sofa-surfers, it is impossible to prove.

Part 8 -

Poverty exists as a parallel but separate reality. City planners work very hard to keep it outside our field of vision.

It is too miserable, too dispiriting, too painful to look at someone defecating in a park or sleeping in a doorway and think of him as “someone’s son”.

It is easier to see him and ask only the unfathomably self-centred question: “How does his homelessness affect me?”

So we cooperate with urban design and work very hard at not seeing, because we do not want to see. We tacitly agree to this apartheid.

Part 9 -

A homeless man, Pawel Koseda, was found dead last year; bled out, impaled on the six-inch spikes of the metal fence that surrounds St Mary Abbots in Kensington, UK.

He had high levels of alcohol in his blood and was wearing hospital pyjamas under his clothes.

Koseda used to be a university lecturer in Poland.

Ed Boord, who found the body, said that several people walked by and didn’t even notice. Said Boord,

“It upset me that someone like that

spends their life not being noticed, and

even in their last moments people still walk past.”

Part 10 -

Defensive or hostile architecture acts as the airplane curtain that separates economy from business and business from first class, protecting those further forward from the envious eyes of those behind.

It keeps poverty unseen and sanitizes our shopping centres, concealing any guilt for over-consuming.

It speaks volumes about our collective attitude to poverty in general and homelessness in particular. It is the aggregated, concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit. Ironically, it doesn’t even achieve its basic goal of making us feel safer. There is no way of locking others out that doesn’t also lock us in.

Making our urban environment hostile

breeds hardness and isolation.

It makes life a little uglier for all of us.

Will drawing attention to the issue of defensive architecture really make a difference? We'd like to think so.

You might not be able to change architecture but you can change attitudes.

It begins with understanding. Understanding the negative impact of defensive architecture. And understanding the unfortunate situation of those most affected; the homeless in the a hostile city.

The city might be hostile.

But the citizens don't have to be.

That's a choice.




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