Spikes on the floor. Bars across benches. Railings. Fences under stairs. Sloped seating. CCTV cameras. All designed to stop someone from sleeping.

Why is this a problem?

Rough sleeping is dangerous and isolating, especially at night. Imagine spending every second in fear of being robbed, spat on, or beaten up. These are the real experiences of our clients. It makes it nearly impossible for people on the street to get any shuteye. Hostile architecture worsens this grim situation, making it even hard to find shelter and denying people the basic human need for sleep.

What is hostile architecture?

Hostile architecture can be subtle and difficult to spot, but once you understand its purpose and you look around, you can see it everywhere across our cities.

These design elements are often intentionally built in public spaces to deter 'unwelcome behaviour' from groups who use these spaces the most. This includes not only people rough sleeping but also young people and others on the margins of society.

Some examples are more obvious than others, but they all have the same purpose:

  • Benches – purposely designed curved, sloped or with armrests to deter people rough sleeping from lying on them for rest or sleep.

  • Spikes – the most aggressive form of hostile architecture often seen on underpasses and near private buildings. Made of concrete or metal, these are deliberately in place to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping or resting.

  • Rocky pavements – deliberately uneven pavement to stop people from sitting or loitering.

  • Street dividers and decoration, such as (plants and boulders) – the primary reason for these embellishments may not be to add greenery but to fill space and discourage people from lingering in the street or doorways.

  • CCTV, fences, anti-climb paint and other protective measures – used to dissuade people from accessing certain areas.

Why does hostile architecture exist?

Hostile architecture has its roots in racial segregation in the United States. Initially, it was used to stop African Americans, who primarily used public buses for transport, from accessing the beach by building a bridge too low for the beach buses to pass under.

In the 1980s, it gained further acceptance, used to increasingly push rough sleepers out of parts of cities over fears that visible homelessness would discourage visitors or investment.  

It continues to be justified by governments and councils as a measure to reduce crime and increase public safety by tackling anti-social behaviour like street drinking and begging.

Hostile architecture often runs alongside laws that criminalise rough sleepers' behaviour when occupying public spaces, such as criminalising begging. Many towns and cities have also used proactive steps to 'move along' people who are rough sleeping rather than supporting them. For example, rough sleepers were forced off the streets of Windsor to make way for Princess Eugenie’s wedding. More recently, the French government has been attempting to clear rough sleepers out of the city ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

Unwelcoming and unhelpful

Hostile architecture treats people on the street like pests, not human beings. It fails to address the root causes of homelessness. Instead, it pushes people away from city centres and support services, often leading them into even more precarious situations. We must treat everyone with dignity, address the underlying causes of homelessness, and recognise the changes we need to make to end it – not just sweep it under the rug.

Spaces should work for everyone, not just a few. Spaces should unite people, not ostracise some. Spaces should prioritise empathy and compassion over exclusion and hostility. It's time to rethink our approach to urban design so we empower and uplift communities, not bring them down.

What should our Government do?

The UK Government pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024, but it is very likely that they will fall short. This is disappointing. While end rough sleeping should be a top priority, given the Government's inability to keep their promise, it becomes urgent for the Government and local councils to take more immediate steps to combat hostile architecture.

Concrete policies need to be put in place: design guidelines, accessibility regulations, community involvement, incentives for inclusive design, and legal deterrents against hostile architecture.

Be aware of hostile architecture and speak out against it

Homelessness hurts us all. It’s our shared responsibility to help people experiencing it and to end it. So, what can you do? 

  • Be aware of hostile architecture and speak out against through social media (@hostiledesign) or community forums so that our public spaces are inclusive and inviting for everyone. 

  • Look out for hostile architecture and call out those who installed it. 

  • Put pressure on councils and city planners to remove hostile architecture that divides us, and redirect focus on creating public spaces that bring people together. 

Our society is stronger when everyone has a place within it. Together, we can end homelessness.