CNS photo/Beck Diefenbach, Reuters

Gerry Turcotte: The high cost of ‘hostile’ design

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  • August 14, 2021

One of my favourite sights when driving along the increasingly paved landscape of Calgary is an ospreys’ nest that has been built atop the metal girder that supports a ubiquitous piece of highway signage. My children and I have marvelled for many years at the site of this large nest, perched out in the open on unprotected steel, which has supported generations of fledgling hawks. So imagine my disappointment driving past the spot recently only to discover that workers had covered the nest with a wooden pyramid. It is impossible not to personify the forlorn hawk, who sat miserably beside this intervention, appearing lost and confused.

My daughter’s first reaction to this was to compare the situation to hostile architecture, and I was reminded immediately why I so admire my 18-year-old activist. “This is exactly what the city has done to the homeless,” she pointed out with indignity, and we researched the many ways a city putatively guards against difference through its physical infrastructure. Exclusionary design, as it has also been called, is a practice of using defensive architectural practices and materials to create barriers that exclude “undesirables”: the homeless and young people, in particular skateboarders.

No one living in a major city will have failed to see benches in bus shelters built on an incline with a solid armrest welded in the middle to ensure that a destitute person cannot lie down on it. Most of us have seen the “anti-homeless spikes” and studs that have been embedded in low-level windowsills, around fountains and even in underpasses. Many cities have installed “artistic” sculptures specifically designed to fit over heated subway grills to ensure that homeless people cannot sit on these to avoid freezing to death in minus-40 degree temperatures. Indeed, there is a ready nomenclature of “silent agents,” as they have been called, that work to support the phenomenon known as “unpleasant design”: bum-proof benches, pay-per-minute seating and comfort-destroyers.

A clear reason for these covert and overt architectural strategies is to police public spaces to keep out undesirables — people and practices — resulting in significant savings through reduction in harmful behaviour and clean-up costs. In the 19th century, doorways were fitted with rounded, projecting brickwork to stop men from urinating in the corners. Today it is the studded bench that makes skateboard tricks impossible to perform. And of course, for many, the practice has the principal advantage of keeping the “unwanted” out of sight and hence out of mind.

What, though, is the wider cost to this defensive design? For post-doctoral fellow Selena Savic, co-editor of Unpleasant Design, “the social cost is a certain kind of segregation, which is observable on other levels of social organization, beyond design of urban spaces.” One could add that it validates and allows a level of denial of social challenges, pushing those — especially the homeless — out of our visible spaces so their plight can more comfortably and comprehensively be forgotten or ignored. Savic makes the important point that “there is a certain kind of spatial injustice that arises from the reduction of access to space based on income, or some biological determinant — race, gender, age. Unpleasant design reinforces this injustice.”

I thought of all this in the context of my own university’s commitment to social justice, and a number of long-standing initiatives that model a different approach to supporting those who are marginalized. St. Mary’s University in Calgary, for example, offers the Humanities 101 program — bridging courses that help those with interrupted educational journeys to have access to higher education. The program is offered free of charge to Calgary’s most economically disadvantaged citizens.

It may surprise readers to know that a majority of the participants in the program also volunteer with me in the President’s Volunteer Team initiatives, which specifically serve our community’s most vulnerable populations. I can’t express how humbling it has been each month to work side by side to clean a shelter or prepare a meal for homeless patrons, with students who are themselves, or who recently were, residents of these facilities. It is difficult to imagine deliberately creating barriers for these remarkable citizens merely because they fail to conform to societal expectations.

The antithesis to unpleasant design and hostile architecture, it seems to me, was Pope Francis’ surprising and remarkable decision to turn a Vatican palazzo into a Palace of the Poor. Many will remember the image of His Eminence seated with his beloved guests, homeless Italian citizens, sharing a meal in safety and dignity. Surely the Palazzo Migliori never welcomed such deserving guests.

I thought, too, of the Homeless Jesus statue, arguably one of Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s most famous works. The statue represents a seemingly homeless citizen, lying on a bench, all identifying features hidden except for the stigmata visible on his feet. It is telling that the statue has elicited two distinct responses. There are those who literally called the police thinking a homeless man was encamped in front of a church, then decried that Jesus was represented in such a lowly station. And there were those who celebrated this remarkable work for reminding us that Jesus brought Himself low precisely to raise all of us up — equally and without prejudice. That was His design — nothing hostile or unwelcoming about it. Perhaps it should be ours as well?

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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