Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Around the corner from her office in beautiful downtown Oakland, California is DeLauer’s Newsstand. It has been there since 1907. For the people who live and work downtown, it is central to our existence. Everyone goes there to buy drinks, lottery tickets, little packs of fruit-flavored cigarillos, and occasionally, even a newspaper.

Fasil Lemme:
“$1.63.”

Roman Mars:
But about eight months ago, it became clear that even though DeLauer’s wants a bunch of people inside the store buying things, they don’t want a bunch of people outside their store hanging out on the sidewalk. Here’s how you can tell.

Roman Mars:
DeLauer’s started playing really loud classical music through a speaker outside. And although I still see a fair number of people hanging out in front of the place, the owner says it’s not nearly as many as before.

Fasil Lemme:
“So, a big change. It was a mess. They hung out outside, and just they playing dice on the street outside the door, and it was crazy. But now it helps us a lot. Even the customer telling us they see the change on the street here. I’m the owner of DeLauer’s Newsstand. My name is Fasil Lemme.”

Selena Savić:
“When you have classical music, people who are young and cool don’t really hang out there. So that’s a way to deter teenagers.”

Roman Mars:
That is Selena Savić.

Selena Savić:
And I am co-author of the research project about unpleasant design.

Roman Mars:
Playing classical music on loudspeakers is an example of what Selena calls unpleasant design

Selena Savić:
Unpleasant design is something that works well at deterring certain behaviors and certain users from particularly public spaces

Roman Mars:
Along with her partner Gordan Savičić, Selena collects and catalogs unpleasant designs.

Selena Savić:
Unpleasant design was here since we started designing public space or since we started designing cities.

Roman Mars:
Unpleasant designs are meant to exert a kind of social control in public by targeting people who spend a lot of time in public spaces, especially the young and the homeless. And the designs often end up pushing these so-called undesirable people out of one space and into another.

Roman Mars:
Music is only one method for deterring teens from public space. In 2009 the Nottinghamshire house estates in England installed pink lighting to keep kids from congregating

Selena Savić:
Pink lights, which would emphasize the skin like blemishes and on teenagers, which should result in teenagers not hanging out there. That’s one of my favorite examples.

Roman Mars:
Mine too, although there’s not a lot of evidence that proves how effective it is. Pink lighting that preys on teenagers’ insecurities is funny and kind of devious, if a little farfetched. Another more substantiated example of targeting and trying to eliminate undesirable behavior with light is the presence of blue lighting in public restrooms. I saw this in UK train stations quite a bit last time I was there.

Selena Savić:
Blue light of a particular color makes the veins slightly less visible.

Roman Mars:
You can’t see your veins through your skin, so it’s hard to find a target if you’re an intravenous drug user.

Selena Savić:
Then it became a very popular solution for all kinds of publicly accessible toilets and even sometimes in buses. When your veins are not visible to you, you’re obviously not going to be able to take any heroin.

Roman Mars:
According to Selena lights are one of the original forms of public social control. For example…

Selena Savić:
There was a bridge in a small town in Bosnia.

Roman Mars:
Specifically in the casbah of Višegrad Bosnia in the early 1900s.

Selena Savić:
Where the Austrian government who kind of annexed the country at that time decided to implement street lighting and that was very unpleasant to the locals, and the locals would destroy the light every night and the government would reinstall it every morning. And so the idea that light is something unpleasant for free expression in public space is something that we completely forgot.

Roman Mars:
We’ve since become so habituated to public lighting that our primary experience with streetlights is that they deter criminal activity and make us feel safe. Unless you’re someone who laments the lack of stars in the night sky or lives in an apartment with a window right next to a screamingly bright bulb, you might never view streetlights as unpleasant at all. Which is one of the reasons why the unpleasant design project wants to point it out so that it gets recognized as being part of an overall design scheme that can take on a much uglier manifestation.

Nick Beake:
“Well these studs may only be a few centimeters tall, but they’ve caused a big debate.”

Roman Mars:
This is from a BBC news story from 2014. The reporter Nick Beake is pointing to a set of angry looking spikes that were installed in the concrete floor of a small alcove by the entrance to an apartment building. The spikes are clearly meant to stop people from sitting or lying there.

Nick Beake:
“Is this a legitimate way to prevent rough sleeping and possible antisocial behavior or are they a symbol of a heartless approach to homelessness?”

Roman Mars:
Pssst. Hey, do you want to know the answer? (whispers) It’s the second one.

Selena Savić:
That spiked a huge debate and even the mayor of London reacted and said that they should be removed and that we should not address homeless people in this way.

Roman Mars:
The grocery chain Tesco also added spikes to areas outside the entrance to one of its stores in central London in 2014. They were removed after days of public protest.

Selena Savić:
Generally, the debate was about the way we treat homelessness. And is that something that we just want to remove from a particular space or is it something that we should somehow structurally address.

Roman Mars:
Spikes to stop people from sitting or lying down evoked a wide variety of reactions from the public.

Woman:
“The first time I saw someone lying here, a homeless couple actually, I didn’t like it because I didn’t like having to walk by them. That’s sounds very selfish. So when I saw those studs, I thought, good idea.”

Roman Mars:
So a lot of people are bothered by the presence of homeless people, but some are also alarmed by just how aggressive the spikes are.

Man:
“It almost looks harmful. If you lie on those, you’re going to get spiked. And so it sends a message, which I think is wrong.”

Roman Mars:
It’s worth saying that these spikes are not just in England. We have them in the U.S. too. Outside of our office as a window ledge where you naturally want to sit, and sure enough there are these black metal doorknob looking things that keep anyone from resting there. And one thing that makes these spikes and similar features especially frustrating is that they’re just there. They’re not moving, there’s no arguing with them.

Selena Savić:
If you have a policeman who prohibits people from sleeping in a park, I think there is still some possible negotiation, and I think that’s good. That’s what society is about, the ongoing negotiation and ongoing change. But when we start using things that are immutable and unchangeable, like metal spikes, there is nothing that is going to change until they rust. I think that’s the most important criteria for calling something unpleasant design. It is something that you cannot negotiate with.

Roman Mars:
We have all tried and probably failed to negotiate with one of the most common and aggravating forms of unpleasant design, public seating. Whether it’s in a park or at a bus stop or in an airport. There are countless ways designers have made it so you cannot get comfortable and most especially cannot lie down.

Selena Savić:
A classic is the bench with armrests in between, which of course let you rest your arm on the armrest, but at the same time, they restrict any other kind of use than sitting upright. The only way this bench can be used is by three people sitting next to each other and not looking at each other, which is not the only thing you can do it on a bench, especially it’s not the only normal and legal thing you can do on a bench.

Roman Mars:
Selena thinks that limiting the way something can be used is problematic.

Selena Savić:
By attacking or addressing one particular problem, you actually generate many more problems and reduce complexity of possible behaviors in public space.

Roman Mars:
It’s not just dividers and armrests. In the ‘Unpleasant Design’ book, they also point out benches that are mounted so high that your feet can’t touch the ground and therefore they’re uncomfortable after a short period of time and they document an increased prevalence of leaning supports at bus stops that you can rest against while standing but they do not accommodate sitting or sleeping. But the object that Selena considers the masterpiece of unpleasant design is the Camden Bench.

Selena Savić:
Basically, it is a design solution to 22 I think antisocial behavior problems. The only thing it does not deter is sitting.

Roman Mars:
The Camden Bench, so named because it was commissioned by Camden London Borough Council is a strange angular, sculpted solid lump of concrete with rounded edges and slopes in unexpected places. The critic on Medium named Frank Swain called it the perfect anti-object. Anti-sleeping because the shape makes it uncomfortable to sleep on, anti-drug dealing because there are no slots or crevices in which to hide drugs, anti-theft because the recesses near the ground allow people to store bags behind their legs and away from would-be criminals, anti-skateboard because the edges on the bench fluctuate in height making grinding difficult, anti-litter because there are no surfaces or crevices where litter can accrue, anti-graffiti because it has a special coating to repel paint.

Roman Mars:
And all those goals are pretty noble. Except for sleeping and skateboarding, I don’t really want the other activities happening in public spaces I go to either, but Selena Savić finds this litany of anti-measures demoralizing.

Selena Savić:
It discourages 22 things. It encourages two: sitting and sitting together. When we expect people to do bad things to the bench before we think of anything good that people might do to this bench. I think that’s a very sad approach to public space.

Roman Mars:
It’s also a contagious approach to public space. There’s a chapter in the ‘Unpleasant Design’ book that’s devoted to all the unpleasant designs used to thwart pigeons in cities, anti-pigeon spikes and nets are everywhere. And even if you’re like Selena and aware of these measures and skeptical of our war on pigeons, you might not have a choice in whether or not to use them.

Selena Savić:
A week after we have published the book, we had a confirmation of this. We didn’t even notice, but on the balcony doors, we actually had anti-pigeon spikes. And then due to somebody hanging out on the balcony who was, I don’t know, a bit clumsy and they destroyed these spikes on one side and we didn’t even notice that. Suddenly the balcony was filled with pigeon shit.

Roman Mars:
Pigeons might not be overwhelming but if the population is spread throughout a city, the ubiquity of pigeon spikes concentrate pigeons in the few places where there are no spikes. Selena argues that’s when the problem is created.

Selena Savić:
And that should not be the way to solve any kind of interest conflicts over a space. But yes, we immediately fixed our spikes.

Roman Mars:
There is always an aspect of coercion to design. Design is used to get you to buy things, to use your iPhone in a certain way. Sometimes without you even being aware of it. And these pieces of hostile and unpleasant architecture are no different.

Selena Savić:
Design is something that is supposed to transmit a certain use of this object, otherwise, it would have not been designed. However, I think it is very problematic when we start excluding people by design.

Roman Mars:
The reason we need a critical theory of unpleasant design is so we can recognize the coercion that is taking place in our public spaces. We need to know when we’re replacing human interaction and nuance and empathy with hard, physical, non-negotiable solutions

Selena Savić:
And this is what we wanted to achieve with this book, to start a debate. There will always be people who believe this is a good way and people who think it’s terrible and we are somehow not extreme in our opinion. We’re really the observers.

Roman Mars:
And now you’re an observer too. Whether you think a certain form of design is exclusionary but serves a greater good or just hostile and offensive, it’s important to be aware of the decisions that are being made for you, because most likely unpleasant design is put there to make things more pleasant for someone just like you.

  1. Philbert de Zwart

    The ‘mosquito noise’ was attempted at one of the exit of the Utrecht Central Station in the Netherlands. Young people used to coalesce there and the noise was installed there to deter them. I was already too old to be bothered by it, but someone sued the city and won. It was considered illegal to systematically bother one portion of the population without prejudice.

    1. Joachim

      Yeah, I too was thinking about stores and so that play sounds, which teens can hear, but older people cannot. It’s a bit passive aggressive, when you just don’t want teenagers near your store.

  2. Defensive Design was originally created to prevent illegal activity. By utilizing these measures to prevent the homeless from sleeping we are conflating homelessness with an illegal activity and effects the public’s treatment of the homeless . I did my MFA thesis in response to Gainesville’s divided benches, it is nice to hear this discussion happening with a wider audience! PrescriptiveSpace.weebly.com

  3. Wednesday Cat

    Anyone interested in this topic should definitely check out William Whyte’s 1979 documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

  4. Melinda

    This was a great episode. Design is a far greater influence on people’s behavior than most people realize, from the design of objects and products to retail store layouts and the rooms your house has and the way your neighborhood and city are constructed. Whether the design is purposefully unpleasant or just stuck that way due to social norms or momentum or specifically constructed to sell more stuff, the average person gets very little say in it even though it completely shapes our lives. I’d love for you to examine this topic some more.

  5. The city of Yonkers, NY just installed huge speakers playing classical music in the park closest to my house this week! It is a safe area in otherwise rough industrial surroundings where kids like to hang out and skateboard. I walk through that park every day, but the kids have never bothered me. They are respectful and don’t skate when people are walking through.

    The music, on the other hand, bothers me. It is so loud that I hear it over the podcast playing in my headphones.

  6. C bear

    The city of San Diego installed a “rock garden” to deter homeless people from sleeping underneath a huge freeway overpass. At first, the city said it was at the wishes of the local residents but details emerged it was actually for the upcoming All-star game. It’s sad really, there’s a lot of ways the city is trying to criminalize homelessness. I hope someday some “archisuits” are made for these rocks so the unfortunate people have a dry place to stay.

    Thanks for the post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the different ways in which societies incorporate hostility into their public designs.

  7. An example of perhaps unintentional hostile design: bleachers at ball parks made of extruded aluminum instead of the traditional wood planks. Note that extruded aluminum is universally used in electronics as a heat sink, designed to carry away as much heat as possible as fast as possible. Sit on one of these on a chilly day, and your body will very quickly be drained of heat. Wood doesn’t conduct heat well, so it’s much more behind-friendly.
    Aluminum doesn’t rot or rust or need painting, so I’m sure it makes sense from a maintenance cost standpoint. But there ought to be some way to mitigate the heat-sinking effect!

    1. Heather

      I’m sure the ball park will be more than happy to sell you a sit-upon or blanket ;)

  8. Anonymous

    Quite obviously, the point of this is so that we don’t have to see, care about, or think about the homeless, driving them even farther out of sight and out of view. Because that’s an unpleasant problem; how dare they even have a right to exist, really? They don’t fit into our society and thus we should deny them even the right to sleep on our public property.

    The sacrifice though, is that in exchange, we have to deal with these ugly eyesores of benches, the spikes, all reminding us of what it is *not* to be human. What it is to care more for zoo animals, like the gorilla that was shot and killed in Cleveland Zoo, and who provoked more angry outrage than a homeless person and his or her death will ever do.

    When I was young, my mother used to lock me out of our childhood home because she was angry with me because I was bisexual. This rendered me homeless for long stretches of time. I was 12 years old. This was back in the 1990s, long before such hostile architecture was in place. I lived very far from the city, in suburbia, but I could make it to the local gas station; and by walking a long way, I could make it to the local mall.

    I’m now disabled permanently, and the taxpayers pay to support me and most likely will do so for the rest of my life. It’s unfortunate that taxpayers don’t understand that a consequence of this heartless and cruel practice which contributes to abuse like that which my mother committed on me, and which society increases by not even allowing a child who’s been kicked out of home to even *sit down* if locked out and discriminated against for his or her sexual orienation, that makes society complicit in the abuse. And if the person dies, it makes society complicit in the death as well.

    1. JamaicaJoe

      Cities need to invest in basic services for displaced people. Shelters, bathrooms, showers, laundry, employment services. They would no longer have a “homeless problem”.

  9. Brian

    Years ago, I stayed at a casino in Atlantic City (not one of the Trump ones, though ;) ). The room had a garish purple and red paint job — no color scheme that any reasonable person would choose. I was later told that the irritating room decor was deliberate. The casino, understandably enough, didn’t want guests hanging around in their rooms when they could be down on the casino floor losing their money to the house…

    1. Jason

      Way to bring Trump into something that’s unrelated to him. I was hoping this site would be an oasis in the sea of internet political squabbling. I was wrong. *sigh*

  10. Allan

    Great episode!
    In industrial sites people are also surrounded with unpleasant designs. There are even checklists and manuals for that. The difference is that the purpose is not so hidden.

  11. ThirteenthLetter

    So all the people so upset that a store owner didn’t want homeless people sleeping in front of his store, are they offering their own homes for the homeless to sleep in? If you’re not willing to offer up your own property, what gives you the right to offer up someone else’s?

    1. Matt in Oakland

      I was thinking the same thing. Today it’s not possible for a parent to stay at home to raise their kids, so teens go unsupervised. If society doesn’t want that, then society needs to find some long term solutions… like a living wage that allows one parent to remain at home, shorter work days or after school activities for the teens to grow from. In the short term I don’t vilify a shop owner from protecting their livelihood -they’ve been put in a situation they have no control over.

      Years back I bought a house open to a busy street. At first I was like, “I want to leave my yard open to others… my stairs available to people needing a place to rest.” Several years later I installed a fence and gate because I tired of coming home to garbage on the steps (including lit cigarettes), urine stains on the house and multi-species feces in the yard. To some commenting I’m the jerk… thus I worry for our future.

  12. Beini

    Very interesting. It’s also not just the homeless and the “unpleasant” groups these designs deter – it’s also the elderly and the less able-bodied of us. I was thinking of a walk I took with my grandma in the city and how all along the way there were so very few comfortable resting spots for her.

  13. S. Ira Grossman

    I was at MIT Architecture School in the late 60’s While there the Institute maintenance department decided to address the pigeons in the Massachusetts Avenue major entry architrave problem by putting strobe lights up there. Clearly an MIT-solution. You could only see the flashing if you looked straight up. No light spilled below. There was an almost imperceptible “click” when the light flashed.

    Of course with the lights constantly flashing the lamps had to be replaced. This went on successfully for over a year until some of us notice that the click was still there but no flashing. The rumor was that maintenance had forgotten to replace the lamps and noticed that the the pigeons didn’t return and figured that it was the clicking that kept them away.

    I should note that I had two classes with Nick Negroponte just after he graduated and was an instructor. He also had a fully dedicated IBM 360 for his computer aided design program. It consisted of entering design criteria such as orientation, adjacency and other and then place blocks to build up a building with notification when the criteria were being violated

    He took the class into a room with a green screen and a joy stick and showed us how we could rotate a cube in all directions. He has a TED talk celebrated 30 years of his affiliation with them that highlights some of his predictions such as a GPS system for auto navigation and online newspapers

    1. JamaicaJoe

      In the early 70’s the Woodfield Mall was constructed in Schaumburg Illinois. I noticed such flashing lights in the common areas of the Mall and asked a coworker, a pretty smart guy and he told me that they were installed to keep shoppers moving through those areas and to not congregate where there was no retail stores. It made sense at the time. There may have been a bird problem, but I would think the designers were focused on generating revenue before worrying about some birds.

  14. Paul Hulford

    I just visited Liverpool, England – the home of The Beatles and think I witnessed unpleasant design gone wrong. Classical music and a uniformed security guard – at McDonalds in the city centre. I would have thought that would repel most of their key demographic.

  15. Mike

    The dynamics leading to homelessness, crime, and drug addiction are societal issues dealt best in a national scale, and with a cohesive long-term, multi-faceted plan. In the meantime, how should localities design their public spaces? Look at McCoppin Hub in San Francisco for an example of best intentions leading now to a fence around the public space. Ironically, maybe it would have been more open to more people with an aggressive design.

  16. Bryan

    Removing an armrest from the center of a bench is not helping homeless persons. A community is not caring for the homeless by giving them a bench to sleep on. Creating real shelter, food, and resources is how you help. I have heard from park directors, who could also be complacent with specifying center armrests, about how they actually help homeless people in their parks with shelter, food, and even jobs. Further more an armrest is helpful to a large portion of our population, for the elderly or people with mobility difficulties it is an aid to help them get back up from sitting. If they don’t get an end seat then that center armrest is key. If you are to apply the 8-80 principles to your community a bench is very helpful for people who can not walk long distances without resting. One person occupying an entire bench will also impede those people from being able to take a needed rest as they walk to work or even buy groceries. Parks and public furniture need to be for everyone in their community and communities need to serve and help everyone. That center armrest might be helping some and removing it might no be actually helping others.
    One a different note, I think the spikes are aggressive and egregious. A center armrest should not be viewed at in the same light.

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