The Camden Bench

Hostile design is still a problem in our public spaces – here’s why

Bars on benches, studs in doorways and fenced off window ledges are just some of the many measures put in place to control how public space is used – but after years of backlash, is anything actually changing?

Back in 2012, the London Borough of Camden turned international heads with its newly commissioned public benches. With slanted edges, no crevices or hiding places and impermeable surface, the “Camden Bench” – as it would come to be known – was lauded as a great example of street furniture.

It won awards from the Design Council and Keep Britain Tidy and was also given PAS68 approval from the Home Office for its counter terrorism uses. But in among the praise, some began to wonder if all the boxes ticked by the Camden Bench actually made for something positive.

“Those things are ram-proof, they’re drug-drop-proof, they’re skateboard-proof,” says artist, designer and activist Stuart Semple. “But what they ended up with was a lump of concrete that no one could really sit on.”

The Camden Bench

“Invisibility is its strength”

The Camden Bench is an example of what Semple, and others like him, call hostile design. Put simply, hostile designs are intentionally created to restrict behaviours in urban spaces in order to maintain public order.

Other examples of hostile design include studs or bolts installed on pavements in front of buildings (particularly areas under cover), diagonal bars fixed into the corners of walls and benches fitted with metal armrests or bars. In nearly all examples, it’s homeless people who feel the impact of the designs the most.

“What’s shocking about it is the amount of people who don’t even clock these designs,” says Semple. “Invisibility is its strength, because once it becomes obvious people do tend to get angry about it.”

Semple knows this from first hand experience. In early 2018, he noticed the benches of his home town of Bournemouth had been retrofitted with bars to prevent rough sleepers. Angered by this, he launched a targeted campaign to get Bournemouth Borough Council to remove them.

Encouraging others to get involved, Semple also created hostiledesign.org, where members of the public could send in pictures of “design crimes” they came across. “I wanted to place this in the context of design,” says Semple. “For me, benches are design projects and I wanted to raise awareness particularly in the art and design communities that we should be using our talents to make things better.”

Bench dividers used to stop people laying down

“Problems that can’t be solved with furniture”

The existence of hostile design is not to say designers themselves are the ones pushing for it – the reality is often far from it. According to Rowland Atkinson, research chair in inclusive societies at the University of Sheffield, design and designers often get co-opted into finding ways to “manage out the backend of the welfare system”.

“Urban design can end up doing the job of a street-level policing presence, for example,” says Atkinson. “If councils install a certain type of bench that doesn’t need to be maintained or its users checked up on, that space ends up running itself.”

Atkinson says what is needed and what the reality is are often miles apart. Where there is a genuine need to create safe spaces that are sympathetic to the needs of different identity groups, hostile design is employed as a quick and cheap solution. This allows, says Atkinson, the inclusive agenda to fall by the wayside.

Semple echoes this, saying: “What ends up happening is that designers and artists get burdened by problems with society that they can’t possibly solve with a bit of furniture.”

Stud interventions on steps

“A duty of care to the public”

Empowering designers not to be part of the problem is something Semple champions. “We need to have the strength of conviction to say we aren’t going to design stuff that hurts people,” he says. “I think we have a duty of care to the public, especially when we’re the ones putting stuff into the public realm.”

Design Council cities programme advisor Catherine Horwill says ultimately public spaces need to work for everybody. In this sense, she feels, any kind of exclusivity is failing at the first hurdle. “Design isn’t just an outcome but an entire process. We need to look from the very beginning to see if spaces are being designed for everyone,” she says.

The Design Council has strengthened its position on city design recently, launching an inclusive environment CPD course earlier this year. Horwill says the course is intended to make people more aware and enthusiastic about inclusive design.

Horwill says questioning briefs is a good place to start – asking what exactly is the problem needing to be solved. “It’s a dangerous process to start from the end of exclusion,” she says, adding that any number of groups who rely on spaces to sit or rest – the elderly, people with disabilities, young families, for example – could also be caught up in the process of excluding the homeless.

Taking an empathetic approach from a broad number of viewpoints, Horwill says, is the first step. “Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s about balancing all requirements where possible.”

Benches retrofitted with iron bars in Germany

“There’s definitely a sense this is wrong”

Ultimately, Semple says, a widespread rethink about the role of public spaces is needed. “We need to start seeing how we can make public spaces areas for people to just be, rather than as places to pass through or shop,” he says. “At the moment, anything that gets in the way of that, like someone without a house for example, gets moved on.”

Semple’s fight to remove the metal bars on Bournemouth benches and wider campaign to expose “design crimes” began around 18 months ago. Since then, a number of local authorities and businesses around the world have listened.

In Mumbai, anti-homeless spikes have been removed from outside a prominent bank building; in Seattle, anti-homeless bike racks were removed by the Department of Transportation; and crucially for Semple, Bournemouth Borough Council have removed the bars on its benches.

“It’s still early days, but I really think towns and cities are starting to ask the deeper question of how we can make public space more inviting,” says Semple. “There’s definitely a sense that this is wrong, and hopefully we’ll start to see even more conscious design.”

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