Defensive Architecture: A Crossroads of Space, Social Power and Law

“A space without social (and legal) meaning is simply a location…much of social space represents a materialization of power, and much of law consists in highly significant and specialized descriptions and prescriptions of the same power.” (Blomley, xix)

It’s becoming more and more apparent in cities of today that spaces, both natural and built, are being re-imagined to serve purposes other than encouraging the social gathering of people. What is even more striking is that city officials and hired architects and planners are then taking these revised ideas of social places and actually creating them. As I read the stories popping up over the internet of places where ‘defensive architecture’ is utilized as a way to discourage loitering and homeless inhabitants, I can’t help but think about the inherent injustice within this ideology and construction. Not to mention that these places which once were used by humans for a multitude of purposes, along with the many unintended uses that arose, will now significantly be lessened. The most popular example right now is the latest installation of metal spikes on the grounds in front of a flat in London, where homeless dwellers would typically take up residence for resting and sleeping.

Photo Credit: Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark Bridge Road, London. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis

This is happening all over the world- everyday there are spaces in our cities that are being redesigned with the intention to make some sort of statement. That’s the key point here- What statement? Because we’re being exposed to so much on a daily basis, we experience a sense of numbing to the issues that seem more routine, almost normalized (this is the environmental psychology). We all know that what may sound and look great on paper does not always work to our best intentions in reality. Building up a downtown center with high-rises, parking lots, and no public spaces sounded great for business but not-so-much for the people that make those businesses run. So where is the consideration for the fellow human when it’s time to develop an idea to reduce the presence of homeless people or loiterers? Homeless people, loitering teens and adults, these are still people. Why is the idea to remove them, extinguish them, make them appear less as if they aren’t even there? The quote at the beginning of the post has stuck with me since I read it over a month ago, and I thought fit with this issue of environmental psychology and defensive architecture. Spaces are not just empty, and how they are designed is not done blindly but with intention and have deeper meanings and implications than what may seem apparent. Every space and place, rich and lush or struggling and dicrepit, has inherent social, political and legal meaning. How that space is managed and utilized, how it’s perceived, establishes and reinforces its value- both in monetary but also in socio-political. The law and the policies that are often validated by law, are all wrapped up by the enveloping blanket of power, which can then choose to share warmth with those of certain social powers while leaving the less socially valuable out in the cold.

Alex Andreou shares:

“Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of private and public, of necessity and property.”

As a mindful planner, my first thought is that instead of repeating our past when it comes to the redesigning of cities and public spaces within them, we must instead approach the situation from a place of compassion and try to see the many problems that are intertwined so tight. When we think of a city and choose to see it as dirty and nearly dead, we’re only seeing it through a myopic lens, and we’re choosing to refuse the good qualities and value that are also present. Sometimes you have to think a bit harder or look from a different angle. Rather than seeing a bus stop as just a place where bums sleep, we need to see the bigger picture and consider the other uses and roles that this bus stop serves. For instance, it’s a bus stop, so it’s useful to those people that take the bus. Since often times people arrive earlier to wait for the bus, there is usually a lag period of time where other people will walk by or stop to rest and/or wait at the stop, and can often be a time where conversations and news are exchanged. Also, if the bus stop has a roof, it serves as a weather shelter for not just bus-users but also those who are homeless. Some bus stops are revitalized to display art, offer Wi-Fi, or just share information. There are many purposes that a bus stop serves and if we only choose to look at one problem with the stop, which is a place but also has significant effects on the many humans that use this stop, than we are being selectively ignorant to the social and political implications. If instead we approach the “homelessness issue” from a place of compassion- instead of attempting to oust the problem as our first reaction, we can instead think of the many possible approaches and attempt to offer solutions that are not only realistic but also more just. Planners, architects, designers, officials, anyone in a position of social power, needs to consider the repercussions and actual human lives that are affected by these less-than-mindful designs. It’s not about the place, it’s about the people. I believe that when we begin to lose the real meaning of why we build and create the places we do, then we lose our connections and our ability to empathize with other humans lessens.

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