The Value of Public Space: What is Hostile Architecture?

Hostile architecture is both increasingly prevalent and increasingly criticized. But what is wrong with hostile architecture?

Sep 17, 2023By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy

public space hostile architecture


Hostile architecture is all around us, guiding our behavior and influencing how we use public space. But what is it exactly? And why is it bad? In this article, we will explore some reasons why we should be concerned about hostile architecture: because it reduces our freedom and because it makes it harder for public spaces to fulfill their dual functions of sustaining local communities and providing a space for democracy to play out.


What is Hostile Architecture? 

Spikes to Prevent people sitting in Stockholm, by Frankie Fouganthin. Via Wikicommons.


Hostile architecture is the term used to describe an approach to urban design that uses the built environment (e.g. benches, ledges, hedges, lawns, walls) to purposefully guide or restrict behavior. Hostile architecture is all around us, especially in cities; and once you’ve learned the term, it is impossible not to notice it.


Ever waited for a bus on a bench you can’t sit on but only rest against? That’s hostile architecture. Ever seen those spikes on the ground in the center of the city? That’s hostile architecture. In both cases, the primary goal is to stop the homeless (or people who want to loiter in the street) from getting too comfortable. In other cases, the targets are other groups. Skateboarders are kept away from tempting obstacles to jump over or grind down (such as stone benches) by the insertion of small metal spikes between the slabs of stone.


Other examples of hostile architecture include ‘the Mosquito,’ an anti-loitering device that emits a high-pitched noise that only young people can hear, sprinklers that sporadically wet the ground to deter people from loitering, anti-homeless spikes, and fencing off areas that are under cover to deter homeless people from sheltering there.

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Anti-Homeless Spikes, London; by Cory Doctorow. Via Wikicommons.


The targets of hostile design tend to be minorities with little power, such as the homeless. After all, who is going to care about a homeless person’s complaint that they have nowhere to sit or lie down? Similarly, who is going to listen to the skateboarder when they explain they are just engaging in a harmless pastime and only do it on the streets because there aren’t enough skateparks anyway?


Although aimed at minority groups, they end up affecting us all. Waiting for a bus is increasingly uncomfortable, and finding somewhere to sleep in an airport if your flight is delayed is nearly impossible. As professor Rowland Atkinson put it in an interview with homeless magazine The Big Issue, ‘The emergent outcome of trying to make places safer has been to create more anti-social spaces.’


Why is Public Space Valuable? 

Bench in a Bus Shelter; Brooklyn. By Tdorante10. Via Wikicommons


Proponents of hostile architecture argue that it is necessary to help maintain order, make public space safer, and stop people from using public space in ways that are unwanted. If people are skateboarding (or sleeping on the streets), other users of the space will not be able to use it. In effect, the argument is that ‘bad’ behavior will crowd out ‘good’ behavior. The result is public space people hurry through, as opposed to spaces people generally want to spend time in.


Critics argue that they disproportionately harm vulnerable minorities and are fundamentally unnecessary. Public space should be for everyone, and excluding people that are considered disagreeable in some way is morally offensive. Ultimately, the question of what to think about hostile architecture is a question about what we want our public space to be like. Answering this question, in turn, requires digging a little deeper and answering the prior question: why is public space valuable? What is its purpose?


Public Space and Community

People sitting in a Public Square; Barcelona by Kyle Taylor. Via Wikicommons.


Public space is valuable for a number of reasons. First, it is necessary to maintain local communities. Local communities are sustained by face-to-face interactions between members, meaning they depend on there being places for people who do not otherwise know each other to meet. Local communities center around places such as shopping areas, markets, sporting facilities, schools, churches, community centers, pubs, parks, allotments, and streets (MacIntyre, 2007, p. xv).


In order for local communities to thrive, these public spaces do need to feel safe and be pleasant enough to spend time in. Hostile architecture attempts to achieve this goal by excluding marginalized people who, they claim, monopolize spaces and make them unsafe and unpleasant. Arm rests are put along benches to ensure homeless people don’t exclude other users of public space (e.g. the more respectable office worker eating their lunch).


However, in trying to sanitize public space in this way, hostile architecture makes it impossible for anyone to spend time there. As a consequence, public spaces lose their vibrancy. They are rendered places we rush through, or briefly eat our lunches in on non-rainy days before returning to the office. This, in turn, reduces the chances we will have encounters with strangers which help sustain local communities.


Public Space and Democracy

Protestors outside the EU Commission building in Sofia, Bulgaria. by 008all. Via Wikicommons


The second reason public space is valuable is that it is important to democracy (Walzer, 1986, p. 470). Public space serves as the site for political activities such as protests, awareness-raising campaigns, speeches, and political conversations. The accessibility of public space also means that one can stumble upon a political protest or demonstration, making one aware of problems one didn’t know about and giving them new causes to support or oppose.


Given the low barriers to entry, this is especially important for minority or marginalized groups, who need support from other groups to have sufficient democratic power to put their issues on the collective democratic agenda. Relatedly, the accessibility of public space also has the democratic benefit that it forces us to meet and share space with strangers who might be unlike us. As a consequence, public space contributes to broadening our awareness of who we share a political community with and, therefore, who will be affected by the political decisions we make.


Hostile architecture makes it harder for public space to play its democratic role in two ways. First, in making public space less hospitable to everyone, it discourages people from spending time there, reducing the opportunities for political engagement with each other. Second, by excluding marginalized groups such as the homeless or groups of teenagers, public space can no longer play the role of raising our awareness of who our co-citizens are. In the sanitized public spaces that plague most western cities’ central business districts, one gets a distorted picture of society where there are no homeless people, skateboarders, or teenagers loitering. This makes it easier to ignore these groups when voting for policies, further exacerbating the problem caused by designing public spaces that don’t cater to all.


Hostile Architecture and Freedom

The Camden Bench, purposefully designed to be uncomfortable to sit on for extended periods. Photo by Factory Furniture. Via Wikicommons


Hostile architecture doesn’t just undermine the value of public space. It is part of a wider phenomenon of control over public space which also threatens to undermine people’s freedom. In his seminal 1991 essay ‘Homeless and the Issue of Freedom’, legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron argues that laws that prohibit certain behavior in public spaces (e.g. urination of sleeping) and, by extension, the hostile architecture used to enforce them mean that certain people are rendered unfree to do the things necessary to live. In other words, they are legislated out of existence.


To illustrate: if a public park prohibits urination, that isn’t too much of a problem for those who have access to toilets (e.g. at home or in businesses that will admit us). Although these people are not free to urinate in the park, they can do so elsewhere. For people who literally have nowhere else to go, these laws effectively prohibit one of their vital bodily functions. They are rendered unfree to urinate full stop.


Rothesay Victorian Public Toilets, by DeFacto. Via Wikicommons.


Although public urination might be offensive to onlookers and bystanders, the solution can’t be prohibiting urination. At the end of the day, it is a law which some people literally cannot comply with; one cannot cease to need to urinate by an act of will. The solution has to be providing spaces where the activities that people need to do to survive can be done. In other words, we need better public facilities for everyone and, for the homeless, access to housing. Doing so isn’t just a matter of protecting homeless people’s well-being; it is also a matter of freedom and maintaining the value of public space which is open and accessible to all




MacIntyre, Alasdair. (2007/1981) After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.

Waldron, Jeremy. (1991) ‘Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom’, UCLA Law Review, Vol. 39, pp. 295-324

Walzer, Michael. (1986) ’Pleasures and Costs of Urbanity’ Dissent Magazine, pp. 470-475

Author Image

By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.