The Hidden Ways Urban Design Segregates The Poor

There's a name for uncomfortable benches, hard-to-reach parks, and ubiquitous surveillance: disciplinary architecture.

A few weeks ago, news emerged that a New York building was planning a separate entrance for residents of its low-income units—"poor doors." Outrage ensued, but the truth is, urban design that tries to segregate well-off from welfare is nothing new. Before poor doors there were anti-homeless spikes, pay-per-minute benches, public spaces secluded behind private infrastructure, and more.

The origins of such exclusionary design—which scholars have called everything from disciplinary architecture to unpleasant design to interdictory space—are ostensibly well-intentioned: to preserve the public order and reduce the timeless fear of crime among city residents. The validity of that reasoning can be debated, but what's clear is that such design, by any name, typically targets poor minorities without a strong political voice.

"One thing that I think is universal about this design, no matter where you go in the world, is it has the effect of separating majorities of the population from relatively small affluent elite minorities of the population," Steven Flusty, who documented interdictory space in Los Angeles in the 1990s, tells Co.Design. "You can't have anything like a just or equitable society unless it includes spatiality."

In a 1994 treatise called "Building Paranoia," Flusty categorized five types (or, in his words, "flavors") of disciplinary architecture that perpetuate this urban spatial injustice. Residents of today's cities will quickly notice how applicable the categories remain.

Stealthy. Stealthy space, while ostensibly public, is tough to find. Maybe there's no clear signage pointing out the stealthy space, or maybe it's just hidden from view. In 2009, the nonprofit SPUR documented and mapped dozens of privately owned public spaces (POPS) throughout San Francisco—many of which are poorly marked or inaccessible by passing pedestrians, despite being designated as places for public use. In some cases, the public space is located beyond a security desk.

Flickr user Jessica Dowse

Slippery. A close cousin to stealthy spaces, slippery spaces can be seen but not easily reached by passers-by. A recent survey of POPS by New York World turned up a good example of slippery space: a park on East 80th Street which is supposed to be open to the public 24 hours a day but which can only be accessed by an inconspicuous staircase. Other common examples include atriums visible through building windows or
plazas perched atop ledges—clear public areas without an obvious public entrance.

Flickr user Julie Gibbons

Crusty. Crusty space is easy to spot and would be easy to access—if not for the gates or structural barriers blocking the way. This design is a frequent source of controversy in Malibu, where gates and guards keep people out of the area's beaches, even though state law considers beaches public property. The latest twist in the battle against this crusty space was the development of an app that showed people the best places to access the shore.

Flickr user Bob Shrader

Prickly. Here's where those spiked ledges and painful benches come into play. Tokyo is often identified with its prickly public seating. The city's parks are home to all kinds of benches designed to make it uncomfortable to sit down for long stretches: some slope forward to put pressure on the feet, others are made of stainless steel that simmers in summer and freezes in winter. The target is clearly homeless people; hence the partitions that make sleeping on these benches all but impossible.

Flickr user Rupert Ganzer

Jittery. The hallmark of jittery space, which might otherwise seem open and unfettered, is the prevalence of security cameras. While more and more cities are turning toward video surveillance of public spaces, London is widely considered the global leader in this area (there's reportedly one CCTV camera for every 11 people in Britain). A more tech-driven offshoot of jittery design is nosy design, which not only monitors public spaces but identifies people in those areas through databases.

Flickr user Spezz

Flusty believes the income inequality plaguing many American cities today is a direct result of decades of disciplinary architecture and interdictory space. By separating various economic classes in space, he says, cities and designers are both sustaining and enhancing a certain social order. A far better approach to designing public places would be creating the sort of open, democratic spaces envisioned by urbanist William Whyte in the 20th century. "Once you've got eyes on the plaza and eyes on the street and people interacting, these other sorts of threats are minimized by that," says Flusty. "That's a far more proactive and pleasant way to go about handling it."

Despite its checkered history, disciplinary architecture has the potential for social good. Jittery design outside an urban senior center, for instance, might not only prevent crimes against the elderly but also alert officials of falls or health emergencies. Dan Lockton, who studies what he calls "design with intent" at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, says a lot of the problems would be solved if designers imagined themselves as the target of the intervention.

"Everyone who's involved in it believes that a design is serving a 'good' purpose, from their perspective, whether that's stopping homeless people sleeping in doorways, or stopping protestors attaching posters to lamp-posts, or trying to persuade obese people to exercise," Lockton tells Co.Design. "Very few people ever believe that their design has 'poor' intentions."

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9 Comments

  • Bill Baylis

    Just go to Palm Beach county in Fla where you will see numerous walled,closed,gated communities where the residents are 90%white and affluent living behind gates...ivy covered walls and armed guards....and then leave those communities and drive down the block to see low class and minority neighborhoods with boarded up houses...broken down cars on the street and working class people struggling to survive in a state that is a GOP/T party stronghold......the differences are like night and day

  • Johann Theron

    Are you convinced that its just a question of poor or rich people, or is it about poor or rich civilization?

  • info

    Wow, is this a superficial and unclear piece of writing! It's not exactly clear what type of space the author presumes would be good, except that it wouldn't be crusty or jittery. It's also not clear why these flaws in public space exclude "welfare" more than "well-off'; the design problems he cites would appear to discourage everyone equally.
    While grasping at this thin rationale for class outrage there's a subtext of fantasy that there might be a condition of a public space that succeeds with no oversight - but all public spaces that are successful have someone maintaining and caring for them. And is it not true that the general enjoyment of all income levels is supported with less crime and fewer vagrants?
    There is abundant deeply humane research on how to achieve all these goals in public space, none of which is reflected here, except a passing citation of William Whyte's name. There might be a way to talk about this subject in a quick article, but this isn't it.
    VM

  • Matthew Litwin

    If you had homeless people sleeping on the stoop in front of your house that you had to step over to get to work, maybe you'd feel differently. These design principles are real and arguably cold, but really... do you welcome homeless people who camp in parks and public places with with open arms, making it so other citizens can't or don't feel safe using them? Is your indignation and self-righteousness really fair? They're not waging class warfare. They are trying to have open spaces that don't smell like stale urine. I don't like seeing benches you can't lay on or transit stops with no seating at all, but it's like that because it's the only practical way they can deal with vagrancy without risk and expense. Worrying about this seems tertiary to actually addressing the poverty issues themselves. This is a mere symptom of the human condition.

  • I'm confused: you say benches with partitions stop homeless people sleeping on them. Yet those homeless people are still going to sleep somewhere. You haven't solved any problem - you've just made so homeless people sleep on the ground. (And as any survival expert will tell you, sleeping on the ground makes you far colder, and hence increases the risk of you dieing in cold conditions. Better to be raised up in some way, if only on a park bench).

    I can't see how you can have a "public space" if it excludes certain members of the public.

  • Sreudian Flip

    If only those who make the decisions were as honest as Matthew. I once complained to a public manager about the railings/bumps put in the seats at bustops. They were arbitrarily placed without regard to some with larger butts (irregardless of their economic status), so a bench that could sit 5 or 6 would only sit 3. The excuse given for these "separators" was that people don't like sitting so close together. So actually people would actually sit now . Even so, some/many institutions, public or private, have simply removed or reduced the number of benches because they want to discourage the homeless/poor from sitting near their establishment. Now you have people sitting against walls on the pavement or laying on the sidewalk. Parks are fenced off, populated with uncomfortable seating arrangements, and have locked toilet facilities. These small cruelties are what are -- ridiculous arrangements made between those with little and no compassion for anyone but themselves.

  • ritasue

    Our Block Association recommended to Community Board 5 in New York City, that the arcades in the West 50s between 6th and 7th Avenue be designated as Holly Whyte Way and that the signage and painting to show pedestrians where to cross and vehicles where to slow down be designed. This project, an urban amenity, deserves to be better known. It adds to the quality of life of those who use the arcades as well as visitors and residents who may not know they exist. The opening of this amenity was celebrated with a band and a party and press coverage and is well used. I was at the time a vice president of the West 54-55 Street Block Association but not the prime mover. The project was proposed in 2012 and with the backing and funding from the Community Board, and lobbying by one champion who was on it and also the president of our Block Association, It was completed in a matter of months.