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.


New “Mindfulness Mondays” and Practice!

I want to announce that every Monday will now officially be “Mindfulness Mondays”, where I will update with my progress in my mindfulness practice and try to link in a helpful article or blog that I think is really great (sharing resources makes friends!). This past week since my first Mindfulness post, I’ve done a lot of reflecting. With regards to this blog, I decided that as a mindful planner, I wanted to stay true to my intentions in discussing urban and rural planning material while still bringing resources useful to the planner or anyone that interacts with the public. However, I do believe it is important to share my personal mindfulness practice and how it helps me in my daily life as a person, blogger, student, and planner.

We all know the expression “manic Monday” and while singing the tune to myself I thought how great it would be to start the week devoting a post that basically tells “manic Mondays” to take a hike. Sure it may sound a bit overly optimistic, but thinking about having a negative attitude towards the start of the week just seems like a waste of time. Getting worried over the tasks I have to complete for the week, along with the ones I don’t even know exist yet, yes I could do that but I have the choice to also not. Instead I can be mindful through reflection on my past practice, as well as how to progress forward throughout the week to make every day count despite the mania. And thus- Mindfulness Mondays!


Mindfulness Mondays > Manic Mondays!

With that said, let’s get on with what I’ve noticed throughout my practice and a helpful article I found that has given me some time to think about being kind towards my body and condition. Every day I have started my morning with some sort of yoga or stretching sequence, and often times I’ll do some more stretching in the afternoon (I start school again tomorrow so that is something I’ve been thinking about and how to keep up my routine I’ve developed). I’ve also been doing the daily workout from Neila Rey’s ‘90 Days of Action‘, and it is definitely working! Yes, there have been some mornings where I’ve woken up knowing that all day my back was going to be my personal upheaval, and yes I got back on my living room carpet, did my yoga, had my coffee and got on my way. Yes I want to get fit, yes I want to be healthy, yes to it all. But guess what is the best thing about this practice? Every morning throughout my poses (some of them I’ve really got down) I have the chance to start fresh and just focus on being alive and breathing in that moment. During the challenging poses, I’m reminded that I will always be a lifelong learner and what a humbling moment that can be. I’m also reminded of my tight muscles and the stresses that are racing through my mind already at 6:30am, and then (exhale) I’m in downward dog noticing the tightness and focusing just on that- noticing.

Even though I’m working through a lot in my mind and body, it is getting easier to go back and work through whatever I have to work through, in that moment.  Each day when I feel that tense spot in my shoulders, I deliberately take a deep breath in, a long audible breath out, and I smile. It’s then that I’m reminded of my practice, my commitment, and my progress. This positive feedback loop only keeps reinforcing my want to learn more, practice as often as I can, and be content with whatever is happening. I know that I can choose to do something that helps me feel better and think clearer, or I can just be upset that my back hurts and try all day to forget about the pain.  On mindful I found a wonderful article on Mindfulness and Coping with Pain, which shares just how to approach living with chronic or acute pain through compassion and kindness.

Bauer-Wu’s main prescription for working with pain and limitation is to “tune in to your body” and what’s going on with it rather than turn away from it…The cornerstone of the mindfulness approach to illness is that you need to learn how to accept where you are, and then you can notice the sensations and respond appropriately.

In realistic expectations of long days and nights ahead, knowing is half of the battle. I feel the pit in my stomach, the dull aching behind my eyes, and the fear that I won’t make it through this semester successfully. But by looking at this fear head on, noticing the bodily reactions and just identifying them as they are, current feelings and sensations, it gives me a lot more control over how I choose to react in that moment. I don’t have to become overwhelmed by these feelings! I don’t have to feel helpless or lost, and that I’ll just have to live like this. Instead I can just notice my thoughts and reactions, and think about how I want to engage with them in a way that will not increase my suffering and even help me feel some relief. I can sit in my car while the wind is howling outside, and just watch the mass of trees in the distance sway back and forth. I can hear how the wind sounds and how it pushes my car, almost knocking on my doors. I can breathe in that moment and be thankful that I’m safe in my car, that I’m not in the cold, and that I can appreciate the trees around me that are still standing tall despite their almost too vigorous dance with the wind. I remind myself that I’ve done this before, that I’ve felt success and happiness, and that I can continue to work on feeling that.

It is compassion that enables you to rediscover “your innate goodness” and the warmth of your heart. It enables you to communicate and connect with others, and counteract the isolation and self-involvement that turns a painful condition into repeated suffering.

I want to shed some light on a blog that really inspired my writing throughout this post. The Green Study is wonderfully raw and yet kindly brings you to a place where you feel like you really are in the moment with her. Michelle writes about the many things she finds relevant, but in such an elegant and descriptive manner, with such honesty that I wish I could just be there in person with her. A small section from her About page:

I started a blog to force myself out into the open, to make a commitment, to learn how to take criticism and most of all, to stop being comfortable. Mission accomplished.

Thank you Michelle for being the inspiration of my post and reminding me to always stay authentic in life and writing.