Using Design to Effect Change

From Hostile Architecture to Guerilla Gardening

By Jessica Antony  –  November 8th, 2019
Good design solves problems. It can be an amazing tool for making use of the space we have available to us and providing functional solutions to the ways in which we organize our lives. Design can also be used as a method of control: directing traffic or directing the movement of bodies in public spaces, for example. But, just as design can be used to restrict the use of space, it can also be used to take back that space or raise awareness of the problematic ways in which our spaces are being regulated.

Controlling Public Space

Hostile architecture – also referred to as defensive architecture or defensive design – uses design to exclude and restrict certain groups of people from using public spaces. You’ve likely seen examples of hostile architecture in your everyday life without realizing it – this type of design is often covertly integrated. Examples of hostile architecture include objects designed in such a way that make their use difficult, such as benches with armrests to prevent sleeping, sloped benches or seating without back rests, or seating made from slick material (like stainless steel). It can include adding elements to specifically restrict the use of an area, such as adding metal spikes to windowsills and sidewalks to prevent sitting, installing large planters or boulders to deter loitering in certain areas, or adding metal pins to ledges and sills to prevent skateboarding. Hostile architecture also includes removing objects altogether, such as uninstalling benches and seating in outdoor areas or shopping malls to prevent people from spending time there. Perhaps less obvious is the use of bright, unpleasant colours or lighting in bathrooms or the use of high-frequency sounds or “anti-teen music” (like classical music) played from speakers in public spaces to discourage young people from hanging around.

The design of Winnipeg’s Portage and Main intersection is infamously barricaded, blocking all pedestrian traffic.

Prevention or Perpetuation?

These kinds of design solutions are sometimes used specifically in city planning as part of a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) approach, which can be argued to have good intentions – crime prevention and the reduction of victimization. Some argue that preventing loitering at bus stop benches help those waiting for the bus feel safer, and that deterring loitering in parks reduces the incidents of criminal activity and opens up green spaces for public use. Others argue that skateboarding in designated skate parks is actually safer for skateboarders the public alike. However, these “anti-homeless” efforts are often seen as a response not to crime and increasing safety, but rather a method of simply covering up the larger issue of affordable housing and access to resources. Alex Andreou of The Guardian puts it simply: “It keeps poverty unseen and sanitises our shopping centres, concealing any guilt for over-consuming. It speaks volumes about our collective attitude to poverty in general and homelessness in particular.” Meenakashi Mannoe of Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society says that hostile architecture not only “reinforces stigma, but it pushes homeless individuals to set up ‘informal tent city structures’” to feel safer.

Designing for Change

While there have been public outcries over the use of hostile architecture, some of the most interesting uses of design to address this issue have been informal or even covert. Take the Oakland Buddha, for example. Dan Stevenson, tired of seeing trash being dumped on the traffic-diverting median installed across from his home, decided to take matters into his own hands. He and his wife Lu purchased a Buddha statue – a decidedly “neutral” figure – from a hardware store and installed it on the median. Not only did the pile-up of garbage bags, mattresses, and other trash cease, but people began leaving offerings for the Buddha, even decorating it, and eventually building a structure around it. The local Vietnamese community began praying at the statue daily, and within two years crime in the area decreased by 82%.  
New York City-based company, Softwalks, makes use of the defensive design of public spaces and creates temporary, moveable objects that provide seating and other alternatives. An element of their Kit of Parts, The Seat is designed to attach to scaffolding, posts, or sidewalk sheds. You can set it up, take a seat, and bring it with you easily. Street-facing store owners can also use them for customer seating. Chicago-based artist, Sarah Ross, addresses hostile architecture in her Archisuits – leisurewear designed to fit specific pieces of hostile architecture in Los Angeles. These suits “include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.” There are also examples of guerilla gardening and the installation of informal bike parking that not only counter hostile architecture but provide alternatives and solutions through design. Taking over unused lots or city space that is being neglected – like parking lots or uncared for greenspace on traffic medians – and planting gardens is a means of making use of space and creating a sense of community. Originating in New York in 1973, the goal is simple: transform unused land into gardens. While it is illegal, because these gardens benefit the community and reduce vandalism, neighbours and city councils often applaud guerilla gardeners rather than prosecute them. Other community activists take to installing small bike rails to buildings and in public spaces to both provide much-needed bike parking and address the issue of the lack of such formally installed structures. While the use of design to solve problems – specifically problems that extend beyond our living rooms – can manifest in ways that arguably flout community well-being and perpetuate the marginalization of certain groups of people, there are innovative and unique ways that design can and is being used to effect change and raise awareness of social issues.

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