Cities can be pretty hostile to the average person. Benches are scarce and public toilets are often unavailable or disgusting. Imagine now you’re a homeless person looking for a place to sleep, and the street architecture is specifically conspiring to stop you.
Of all the designs intended to discourage homeless loitering, anti-homeless spikes are the most clearly evil. They cover flat, raised ledges with sharp spikes to stop people from sitting or sleeping on them. They are part of a growing number of urban measures called “defensive architecture,” which, says activist Leah Borromeo, “precludes some form of attack.”
As an antidote, Borromeo and a group of friends have created the Anti Anti Homeless Spikes project, which is a mattress glued over a set of vicious-looking spikes on Curtain Road in London’s Shoreditch. Next to the mattress is a small library of books, including John Gledhill’s The New War On The Poor and Bradley Garrett’s Explore Everything: Place Hacking The City. Anyone is invited to sit, relax, and read for a while, or to spend the night.
Borromeo says she chose Curtain Road because “it’s the vanguard of gentrification and the local population no longer exists.” What used to be a dodgy street through a rough neighborhood filled with artists and cheap bars is now “utterly unaffordable and filled with people who want to buy into a certain lifestyle without giving anything back.” She compares it with Brooklyn.
Spikes are the most obvious form of evil architecture, and “poor doors”—separate entrances for the mandatory affordable-housing sections in otherwise upmarket developments—are possibly the most outrageous, but the modern city has plenty more design features that make it inhospitable to humans. Have you ever wondered why public seating is so uncomfortable? It’s to stop you from hanging around for too long.
Park benches have pointless arm-rests that divide them into sections, making it impossible to lay down and sleep. Bus stops have slanted seating that you can kind of lean against, but it’s more comfortable just to stand.
It’s easy to see gentrification in terms of the greasy spoon moving out, and the boutique chain coffee shop moving in, or rising housing prices driving out less affluent residents. But it’s also about stealing public space from the public, and in turn sucking the life out of the city, one neighborhood at a time.
“In some countries, they literally kick the poor out of doorways,” says Borromeo. “In others, like the more affluent areas of California, they’ve designed out [sidewalks]—this means no one who can’t afford a car is welcome in this space. You don’t have anywhere to walk and you are meant to drive from one destination to another.”
You fancy some lunch, so you take your packed lunch and takeaway coffee and try to find a spot to sit. Good luck with that. Unless you have a public park nearby, you’ll see that the only seating is outside bars and restaurants, and it’s private, even though it’s using the public sidewalk.
Or you may see a bench outside a hair salon or tattoo parlor, but if you’re too shabby-looking you’ll be asked to move along. And of course the anti-homeless spikes stop people like you and me from sitting on a sunny ledge to enjoy our delicious home-made sandwiches. The message is pretty clear—this part of town is for paying customers only. It’s not just anti-homeless, but anti-thrift. It’s hard to spend a day wandering your own city without feeling like a tourist who has to pay for everything.
“Spikes do nothing more than shoo the realities of poverty and inequality away from your backyard—so you don’t have to see it or confront what you can do to make things more equal,” says Borromeo. “And that is really selfish.”