Hostile By Design

Christine Simiriglia
leaner rail

Have you ever noticed seemingly-random spikes on sidewalks or ledges outside of a building? Or wondered why benches have metal separators that limit your ability to spread out in public spaces?

That’s what hostile design looks like. Those items were specifically designed to keep people from loitering, sitting, or laying down in those spaces. They’re meant to scream “you aren’t welcome here!” without actually having to say anything at all.

It’s one of the many ways that people experiencing homelessness and housing instability are ostracized.

And it doesn’t just extend to private properties. Public parks, community spaces, and even bus shelters are affected. Isn’t the point of a public park for anyone, regardless of their housing status, to be able to enjoy it? Aren’t benches in bus shelters meant to provide space for people who cannot stand for long periods of time to rest while waiting for a bus?

Instead, benches have barriers or armrests strategically placed so that no one can lay down. Spikes are installed in spaces that provide shelter and warmth when it is cold outside. Benches in bus shelters are replaced with “leaner rails,” which require that you be able to stand for however long you need to wait for the bus. 

spikes on areas in the city
Defensive additions outside Eight Penn Center, near 17th Street in Center City. Samantha Melamed

This doesn’t only affect those experiencing homelessness. Spikes are liable to trip pedestrians or block wheelchairs. Armrests or dividers on benches make it difficult to comfortably sit, rest, or spread out for anyone using the bench. And, of course, leaner rails aren’t friendly towards seniors or those with disabilities who cannot stand for long periods of time.

Taking that a step further, hostile architecture can also look like designing low-income apartments differently. Not providing enough overhead lighting and storage is common in low-income units. Energy efficiency is not taken into consideration when choosing appliances, which means that the tenants end up using more energy and paying higher bills. So-called luxuries like balconies or outdoor spaces are not included, despite the relatively low cost of doing so.

Low-income housing is not often designed for tenants to live well. That’s another way that those facing housing instability or homelessness are otherized or treated as less than.

That’s why we launched the Pathways Housing Wellness Corporation. We want to rebuild existing homes in Philadelphia into moderate-sized multi-family units that not only fit into the landscape of the neighborhood, but provide all of the amenities needed to live well regardless of your income status.

For-profit developers of affordable housing, of course, want and need to make a profit on their projects. As a nonprofit, we are uniquely situated to be able to provide affordable housing that is actually affordable and not reliant on profit.

As an agency that master leases hundreds of low rent units throughout the city, we see a lot of corners cut to make rental units profitable. We can’t solve all of the issues but we can do this:

  1. Understand that the digital divide is the new redlining and ensure that any housing we build and/or manage will make internet service accessible to all tenants.
  2. We know that heating and cooling systems that save landlords money to install are much more expensive for tenants to run (i.e. electric heating units at floor level). We will use green sources to help reduce both energy use and cost so that people can put their resources toward moving forward with life goals.
  3. We will make sure there is adequate ceiling light throughout our units. When possible, we will install ceiling fans.
  4. Appliances included in the units will be energy efficient and of good quality.
  5. There will be storage solutions built in so individuals and families have adequate space to store their treasured belongings.

We know that when treated with respect and dignity, people thrive. We believe that investing upfront in providing an elevated standard of low-income housing, without including hostile architecture elements, is an essential need for our community and we are proud to be able to provide that through the Pathways Housing Wellness Corporation.