Unpleasant Design in Disguise: Bike Racks & Boulders as Defensive Urbanism

"Sitzkiesel" ("sitting-pebble") replacing a former bench in the Kleiner Tiergarten park in Berlin, Germany by Fridolin freudenfett (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A lot of so-called “defensive design” is explicit and easy to spot, like sloped benches or anti-homeless spikes to prevent rough sleeping. But in some cases, the designs are more subtle, masquerading as aesthetic improvements or even other kinds of public infrastructure — sprinklers, for instance, that dissuade sleepers but water no plants, or these curiously isolated bicycle racks installed last year in Seattle.

At a glance, they seem like helpful cycling infrastructure conveniently sheltered below an overpass. But some people were suspicious, noting an apparent lack of usage or need in that particular location. Situated under a viaduct, these parking spots looked out of place. And thanks to a public records request, The Stranger helped break the story of their true purpose as part of a “homelessness emergency response” effort. The request revealed that these racks were designed to deter camping and funded by money set aside for homeless-related initiatives.

Sara Rankin, a law professor who directs the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, explains that “the idea, of course, is to drive undesirable people away from certain public areas.” She also notes that “cities are getting much more savvy in their approaches. They realize that a fence is blatantly clear to everyone,” but, she says, “if you install bike racks or boulders that somehow are serving other functions, it’s very … ‘disingenuous’ would be putting it mildly.”

And that example of using boulders is not an abstract one — San Francisco recently spent thousands of dollars to haul and install a set of large rocks in a popular homeless camping area. “We put them in there to help deter re-encampment a bit and for aesthetics, just to change it up,” Larry Stringer, Deputy Director of Operations at the city’s Department of Public Works, told Mission Local. Officials claim this kind of intervention is cheaper and nicer than doing periodic sweeps, but many activists see it as just another form of anti-homeless landscaping.

Defensive design initiatives tend to be divisive. Proponents argue they can help get the homeless off the streets, or achieve other urban goals (like dissuading loiterers and skateboarders). Critics say these designs create problems — angled benches can be uncomfortable for the elderly or unusable for people with disabilities They also can move problems around, forcing homeless populations, for example, to occupy more dangerous areas with less public visibility.

Either way, camouflage-based strategies seem fraught — they risk masking problems rather than trying to solve them, and hiding true intentions through creative budgeting and aesthetic obfuscation. It’s also unclear how effective such designs really are.

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