Defensive Architecture: Public Space with Conditions

“Defensive architecture” is a term used to describe design features that are intended to restrict the use of space to a narrow set of activities that are approved by the owner.

“Defensive architecture” is a term used to describe design features that are intended to restrict the use of space to a narrow set of activities that are approved by the owner. Alex Andreou, writing for The Guardian, enumerated these measure):

From ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges to bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from water sprinklers and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, from metal park benches with solid dividers to forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.

Alex was homeless for over a year, and it’s from this perspective that he describes defensive architecture, and the ways in which people can be made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. These features can easily go unnoticed by those who are not targeted. Measures to prevent the homeless from resting in public space can be as subtle as a slightly convex surface, or as obvious as metal studs that resemble those used to deter pigeons from roosting. The willingness of the public to ignore these features is said to stem from a reluctance to confront our own precarious role within an economic system that depends on our personal debt. Social safety nets have been eroded, wealth inequality has been on the rise, and the segregation of social classes in cities is imposed by this growing gap of affordability. The built environment of the city manifests and reinforces the prevalent attitude of its citizens:

Poverty exists as a parallel, but separate, reality. City planners work very hard to keep it outside our field of vision. It is too miserable, too dispiriting, too painful to look at someone defecating in a park or sleeping in a doorway and think of him as “someone’s son”. It is easier to see him and ask only the unfathomably self-centred question: “How does his homelessness affect me?” So we cooperate with urban design and work very hard at not seeing, because we do not want to see. We tacitly agree to this apartheid.

Cities officially, although less tacitly, agree, as they satisfy their own requirements for public space by requiring private developments to include publicly-accessible space, or accepting such space (privately-owned public space—POPS) in exchange for the waiving of zoning restrictions. In a six part series, Parks In Crisis, Spacing traces this practice from 1950s New York to today’s Toronto. Kimberly Noble, writing for that series:

In New York, planning officials in the late 1950s began offering private developers additional height and density in exchange for light and public open space. This “incentive zoning” generated hundreds of plazas, arcades, walkways and pocket parks owned and maintained by property managers.

Approving and promoting POPS looks good to this municipality. Piggybacking on — or expanding slightly — plans that developers already have in place, in exchange for a bit more height or density, appears to be highly economical. POPS, in theory, provide some of the benefits of public parks without requiring the city to maintain lawns, trees, gardens or infrastructure. What’s more, POPS can be built without depleting the city’s parkland reserve funds.

“As Toronto continues to grow,” according to a May, 2014, staff report adopted by council, “there is an increasing need and demand to create new parks and open spaces as places of retreat, relaxation and recreation that contribute to the health and well-being of City residents. As land values increase, however, it is not always possible to purchase properties to create new public parks in areas of the City that are most in need.” New POPS guidelines include classifications for past and future POPS, plus standards for access, materials, lighting and signage.

Yet there’s no consensus on the effectiveness of POPS policies. “Given the whole dysfunctional nature of what’s going on in PFR, I think the whole POPS thing has been relatively successful,” said a former city insider. But, he added, “POPS should never have been seen as a replacement for public parks.”

Kayden, who runs New York’s own POPS database, has concluded that POPS policies pose three substantial dangers: they undermine zoning requirements; they signal to developers that zoning exemptions are for sale; and they are not equitable because, unlike public parks, few POPS are equally accessible to every citizen.

The city defers costs and responsibility. For private owners, the responsibility of maintenance often includes a security presence or, at least, surveillance, which fundamentally changes how the public relates to the space. Unlike on publicly-owned land, the public is often actively discouraged from lingering, taking photos, or congregating. POPS distort the relationships between citizens and their cities, because this space is often otherwise indistinguishable from publicly owned squares, plazas, and parks.

During the Occupy protests in 2011, demonstrations in both New York and London involved POPS—Zuccotti Park and Paternoster Square, respectively—which justified the forceful dispersion of otherwise legal gatherings.

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