Cities are hard places. Filled with concrete, asphalt, wood, and steel surfaces, urban centers manifest their edge physically as well as metaphorically. And much of what makes cities seem unfriendly is not happenstance; they are intentionally engineered to keep us moving. The trick to urban design that creates discomfort, known as “hostile architecture,” is that its tools are hidden in plain sight.
The origin of the term is unknown, but hostile architecture has always been part of urban life. In 19th-century England, anti-urination devices—conical mounds of stone filling out the corners of buildings—prevented people from relieving themselves. Anti-roosting spikes have long been a popular form of animal control, and are usually added to the ledges of apartment buildings to avoid the nastiness of guano on the doorstep.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s and ‘90s, when the broken-windows theory of policing took hold in American cities, that seemingly banal behaviors had the potential to be criminalized if they happened on the street: sitting, standing, waiting, sleeping. Architects began to use urban design to combat these behaviors, and hostile architecture became a familiar sight.
The changes they made to the urban environment were small but ingenious. A nubbin on a handrail could, for instance, send a skateboarder flying, or a warm subway grate would get covered with spikes, turning a potential winter comfort for a homeless person into a form of medieval torture.
Here in New York City, this kind of design is all around us. John Michael Kilbane spent several months photographing hostile architecture across the city, spotting it on the Upper East Side, in Midtown, and down in the Financial District—anywhere interlopers might be kept at bay. He found it edging elegant topiaries, guarding doors, and watching him from hidden corners; as he looked for these features, an invisible city was made visible. There’s a taxonomy to this unfriendly urban furniture, which can be roughly divided into seating, surfaces, barriers, and surveillance.
You can find an uncomfortable bench nearly everywhere in New York. They invite you to sit, but not to stay. The discomfort of these seats is sometimes disguised by their gentility; an elegant, deep-green park bench with its gently swooping armrest modestly divides two sitters while making it impossible to lay down. A recent renovation in New York subway stations removed benches and introduced “leaning bars”—handsome slabs of wood, about hip-high, good for just about nothing except avoiding the white tiled subway wall.
Benches are ground zero for anti-homeless design, a common feature of hostile architecture. In his 1990 book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis wrote about the installation of “bum-proof” benches on Skid Row, “a new, barrel-shaped bus bench that offers a minimal surface for uncomfortable sitting, while making sleeping utterly impossible.”
Hostile architecture studs the city with danger. These unfriendly surfaces are created with decorative, dangerous adornment that gives older structures a medieval fortress quality—when in need, just add spikes—and newer buildings an eerie quality, where the discomfort is built into the building itself, with protruding edges or heavy metal bumps.
Different neighborhoods use different styles of hostile design. On the Upper East Side, with its enormous marble apartment blocks, iron fleurs-de-lis are stamped on any surface where someone might want to sit, lean, or sleep. You might not realize you could’ve rested somewhere until you see the giant spike coming out of it.
Hostile architecture also cages its prey. A triangular crown of spikes surrounds fire hydrants; a subway grate is covered with a wedge of iron bars. Barriers tell you where to sit in an enormous urban plaza, corralling crowds and discouraging loiterers; they hem in greenery and keep out curious dogs. They can take the form of planters, dotted in front of a building to protect an entrance from an out-of-control car or bomb-filled truck. They contain the vulnerable parts of a city from its most aggressive predators: humans.
When sociologist William Whyte set out to understand how people actually moved through urban spaces in 1970s New York, he focused on public plazas—open spaces that the city had encouraged developers to build so more sunlight could reach the pavement. The plazas were used primarily for entering and exiting buildings, but Whyte noticed how people gathered in them, and how these people enjoyed using these spaces.
Whyte was well aware of the city’s homelessness problem at the time. But his solution was more comfort, not less. “The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better public space is the undesirables problem,” he wrote in his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. “They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem.”
A 2016 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty tracked the changes in anti-homeless measures in 187 American cities over ten years, and found that bans on “sitting and lying down in public” have increased by 52 percent, and bans on “loitering, loafing, and vagrancy citywide” have increased by 88 percent. Monitoring the way people move through the urban environment has become its own form of defensive design, as security cameras, harsh lighting, and wide-open spaces proliferate, keeping sight lines open. Surveillance has proved to be a remarkable evolution in the long history of hostile architecture: When physical barriers aren’t enough, the psychological ones take hold.