Voices of Youth: Detroit teen dives into the history of hostile architecture

This opinion piece is a personal essay that forms part of a series. The initiative sees youth partnered with writing, photography, and art mentors to help capture their own perspective and narrative. The program is made possible with funding from the Skillman Foundation.
Hostile architecture is an urban-design strategy that uses architecture to restrict certain actions taken upon the property. Hostile architecture mainly affects homeless people, but also can affect other members of our community.

This is an issue to bring awareness to because homelessness increases more and more each year. Homeless people are already struggling to find places to sleep and or stay warm and hostile architecture makes it more difficult. Not only does it affect homeless people, but it also has an impact on pregnant people and people with disabilities. 

Hostile architecture can be found as early as the 19th century in European countries and cities like Venice, Italy, and Norwich, England, where they used urine deflectors to discourage public urination. The design is also partially rooted in racism in America. Architects like Robert Moses helped with the development of hostile architecture. He made the bridges that cross the parkways leading from New York City to Long Island, designed to discourage poor people from using the parkways. An example can also be found locally in Detroit’s Eighth Mile Wall. The Eight Mile Wall, also known as the Berlin Wall, was built in 1941 to help segregate predominantly Black neighborhoods with white neighborhoods.

In more recent days, hostile architecture is still active but used for different purposes. It's often used against the homeless. For example the armrest on benches on Detroit’s River Walk; the armrests are in place for the prevention of laying across the benches and sleeping. Another example of how the design approach is in the current world is when large public spaces don't have seating options. In Manhattan, on East 56th Street and Third Avenue, office workers have to lean on the wall for a short break because there aren’t any chairs or tables.

In 2022 approximately 8,206 Michigan citizens were considered homeless USA Facts. Homeless people struggle daily with finding places to sleep, finding shelter, and figuring out how or if they are even going to eat that day. Hostile architecture prohibits individuals. Although advocates of the design style try to justify it and say that hostile architecture is to help decrease crime rates, it makes things more difficult for vulnerable members of the community.

There aren’t many anti-hostile architecture companies/teams, but there have been community responses. In 2009 an artist and former Columbia Heights resident, Sarah Tooley, developed a public art installation called “Public Dialogues in Public Places” in Washington, D.C. After a while, the benches that formed part of her installation were removed, which gave people nowhere to rest or sit down whilst waiting for the bus. With the help of volunteers, Tooley installed brightly colored benches with sentences/statements about the city’s hostile design and their involvement with defensive design.

For those who want to join the cause to spread awareness for hostile architecture; you can send messages, emails, or letters to companies that currently use hostile architecture. You can also contact your city representatives or elected state officials. Lastly, you can just post about hostile architecture on social media platforms to get the word out because many people still have not heard of hostile architecture or they don’t know the negativity this brings communities.

Nyla Davison. Photo supplied.

Photos by Kahn Santori Davison. 
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