How Hostile Architecture Conquered Los Angeles

Notice something weird about the bench above? Look closer:

Why the heck is that bar there? Weird. Now, check out this one:

Another bar. Hmm. In fact, practically all public benches in L.A.—at least on paved streets— are intentionally uncomfortable and virtually impossible to recline or sleep in.

How about this innocuous-looking plant bed?

Or this “bench”:

Or these dots:

All these design features fall under what is generally referred to as hostile architecture or hostile urbanism. Amber Hawkes, Co-Director of Here LA, defines hostile architecture as “any streetscaping element or design move in the public realm that is unfriendly to the human being.” Hawkes is co-Director at Here LA, LA-based urban design and urban planning firm, which “uses positive urbanism to guide conceptual design and strategic plans.”

You know those pigeon spikes to stop pigeons from congregating? Imagine that, but for humans.

One of the clearest targets of hostile architecture is Los Angeles’s massive homeless population. Los Angeles County is home to one of the nation's largest homeless populations—there are an estimated 57,794 people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County on any given night, up from 46,874 in 2016.

Hostile architecture can be found in all L.A. neighborhoods, but it’s especially common in and near our parks, public transit hubs, and in various downtown city centers throughout the Southland. And it’s happening so quietly and subtly that most unaffected people don’t know or don’t care.

And it’s not just benches and concrete slabs. There are spikes, pig ears, bollards, grates and other elements (like bolted vents making it impossible to sleep near a heating vent in winter in colder climates, for example) to dissuade homeless individuals from resting or sleeping in alleys, near store fronts, or in parks. Or you could argue that setting off sprinklers in the middle of the night to spray homeless people is both hostile architecture and possibly criminal.

“At its root, hostile urbanism is a defensive reaction based on fear—fear of crime, fear of 'the other," fear of change,” Hawkes asserts. Hostile architecture is for property owners who are afraid of those who have less material access than them. In that sense, it's a perfect symbol of our times— a visual correlative for our broken system of inequality and ignorance,

But hostile architecture isn’t just targeted at homeless citizens. Skaters—and youth in general—are also a nuisance to property owners, and you don’t have to go far to see elements designed to keep these groups away.

Some of the most openly pernicious structural signalling can be found in these signs.

Like this sign on the bottom (enlarged on right), seemingly homemade, trying to discourage people from driving down a street with a trailhead:

Or this one (Translation: "No brown people."):

But it’s not just these officially approved design elements. It’s also about policy that is trying to outlaw use of public space. Last year, a City Councilperson tried to make playgrounds off limits to people without children, and now it’s now illegal to sleep in your car across large swaths of the city (even though your car is technically private property on public ground).

The idea seems to be that if an exterior space becomes anything more than a place to walk or commute through, it's a problem. In reality, many urban planners and designers feel that encouraging use of public space more fully activates an area and increases the quality of life.

Who would want to spend any time here?

Hawkes finds that much of this wave of bad design started with the freeways, that “ripped through our neighborhoods [and] have created residual spaces that are unpleasant for all of our senses. They are loud, dark, vacant, smelly, dull, and vast."

"In L.A., these freeway-adjacent areas attract all forms of hostile urbanism: gates, fences, and surface treatments to ward off encampments," she continued. "Really these are in response to the original hostile urbanism of the freeway itself. I hope by now we realize that we just cannot design cities in this way. No one wants to walk next to or under a monolithic elevated concrete structure with vehicles driving right next to you at 70 miles per hour,” Hawkes laments.

Sometimes, there isn’t even a clear element of a space that makes it directly hostile. Rather, the lack of anything usable in an outside space means that no one is supposed to stay outside of buildings like this very long (lest they be accused of being jewel thieves):

For most property owners, a sidewalk is just a place for people to walk by, not to congregate. Congregation is bad, because people can’t be trusted. Pretty scary.

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Elements of hostile architecture are often all but invisible to non-homeless Angelenos; few people who aren't directly affected by their presence will notice these details, or register their significance. But for the people these features are intended to target, the messages being conveyed are clear. Homelessness activist and former Skid Row resident himself, Eddie H. explains, “What you see is just a microcosm of a bigger picture. To put it into a historical context, there’s always been this disrespect of those who are not of the dominant culture, in a socio-economic way.” He also tells me there’s nothing new about hostility towards the homeless. Lawmakers have been trying to outlaw being homeless for years in Los Angeles, in one guise or another.

As the battle over L.A.’s density and uses of public space rages on, it may feel hopeless to combat private interests who are aggressively trying to nullify public space. “I think the number one most overlooked strategy,” Hawkes insists, “is for people to use public spaces themselves. Get out there, walk, bike, inhabit the space. The more people that fill the urban realm, the more these treatments will be obsolete.”

There is also the hope that funds from Measure M will help improve first-last mile linkages, which will give an opportunity to rethink what we want those transitional spaces to feel and look like for non-motorists. Often funding is the obstacle; even when designers and engineers want to do it better their hands are tied because the pretty solutions may cost more and the money just isn't there.

“I hope to see with Measure M,” Hawkes says, “a repositioning of priorities; the baseline that we've been using for years isn't good enough, we need to up our game and design with intent. As urban planners and designers we are the psychologists of the urban realm. We need to make spaces for healthy human interactions to take shape and flourish; we need to help our cities find their mojo again.”