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Defensive architecture in the age of pandemics

15 of January '21

Defensive architecture, that is,architecture that defends itself against the occupant. Hostile. Controlling. It has recently taken on entirely new forms, and we are slowly beginning to get used to being uncomfortable in urban spaces.

Whether we call it hostile architecture, defensive design or exclusionary planning, this mechanism has been occurring in urban space for centuries and nothing promises to find a replacement. It serves to change human behavior and limit the ways in which an object or place can be used. Hostile architecture takes many forms. Aggressive constructions, such as spikes that prevent homeless people from staying overnight, to completely inconspicuous objects, such as inconvenient urban furniture, but also restricting access to greenery or comfortable function. And although theoretically the use of these solutions is intended to do good, from the point of view of sociology and urban planning, the balance of these actions is decidedly negative.

Where did this idea come from?

We have been talking loudly about all kinds of controls recently. We protest against the restrictions imposed on us and the rights taken away. The space that surrounds us also tries to control us in some way, imposing more restrictions, and in the hard times of the pandemic they have become extremely restrictive. Once trivial to spot spikes, cameras, barriers. And although they arouse widespread distaste, they continue to function in space, now in a more subtle way. These techniques were, and still are, used in many cities to scare off the homeless and keep them out of public spaces. Social divisions are deeply rooted in human culture. Defensive architecture is an urban design strategy that uses elements to intentionally direct or reduce behavior to prevent crime and maintain order. Recently, in the era of pandemics, among other things, it has counteracted the spread of the virus, but the effects of these enforced behaviors have a negative effect on our psyche.

pandemic restrictions

When you're at the train station, unable to find a space to sit quietly when all the benches are taped off, do you feel comfortable? Do police patrols in the park affect your safety, or do they also breed anxiety? Enforced distance? A ban on eating in public spaces? These, too, are elements that force a change in behavior and aim for the public good, but they also affect our psyche, often creating discomfort and insecurity.

Although conscious architects no longer install spikes that prevent people from getting down, we still encounter fake cameras and rung-up benches. In many Polish cities, defensive design still effectively deters the homeless. Great. Or maybe instead of just pretending the problem doesn't exist because we don't see it, we should address its genesis: why are so many people homeless here? The problem was particularly noticeable last year, when the headquarters of homeless shelters were closed (on the occasion of coronavirus restrictions) and the city police chased people out of public places. As we added another hashtag #stayhome, the benches and bus stops were filled with people who don't have that home. And while we won't physically see the spikes once typical of hostile architecture there, the very way public spaces are organized and dealt with is a most sympathetic example of urban defensiveness.

lack of parks

The link between green spaces and mental health is proven, and we have long fought for parks and meadows in cities. I think everyone prefers green views to windowless basements. Just looking at trees can have real health benefits. Contact with vegetation does not have to be active to provide health benefits. So we can safely say that taking away access to the forest, or even the park, is one of the worst examples of hostile architecture. Unequal access to greenery in cities is a modern way of social segregation. More and more parks are private parts of development complexes.

If the city is our most enduring and effective attempt to create the world, a mirror of society, it should rearrange the world we want. Every hostile project, every treatment of the city, every action in public space that makes us uncomfortable should make us think.

Marta Kowalska

The vote has already been cast