photos: Spring Advertising for RainCity Housing

OPINION - Disciplinary architecture: A case study in anti-homeless NIMBY-ism

Vancouver’s Spring Advertising designed benches this year for RainCity Housing that aim to provide an alternative to the disciplinary architecture often seen in public spaces aimed at welcoming certain demographics of people while shutting others out.

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Big news last week was the street-level installation of spikes outside a new luxury housing complex in Southwark, a south central neighbourhood of London, England. The spikes were assumedly erected in response to a homeless person who had been sleeping there a few weeks ago. Pictures and commentary about the spikes spread quickly through Twitter, Facebook and other social media. 

My friend, Rev. Jim Houston, said, “The really amazing part of the story is the widespread uproar on behalf of the homeless against the use of ‘defensive architecture.’” Defensive, or disciplinary architecture often arises because communities (businesses, residents, police) are complaining about the use of public spaces by people they deem to be nuisances.

It’s this line of thinking that often leads to laws that criminalize people experiencing homelessness. This manifests in ticketing, use of space bylaws such as rules that prohibit sleeping in parks or panhandling rules, and even the rising incidence of local authorities cracking down on feeding people who are hungry in public spaces—the latest National Coalition for the Homeless report on the state of homelessness in the United States reflects a troubling increase on municipal bans on publicly giving people free food.

A change in public conversation

Public reaction to the anti-sleeping street spikes in London is unusual, Houston says, because rather than the usual anti-homeless NIMBY-ism that can come about in these conversations, many people are protesting and claiming that the spikes are invasive and inhumane.

Defensive or disciplinary architecture includes any type of built structure that aims to exclude certain uses, or certain groups of people, from using that structure. For example, designing benches that feature steep slopes prevent people from sitting for long, though one can lean against them. Benches with divides on the seats prevent people from sleeping on them. The same is true of narrow bus shelter seats.

Other techniques include blasting loud noises all night in areas where people experiencing homelessness gather, or continually washing down window ledges, sidewalks, and benches. These techniques are also used to prevent skateboarders from using public spaces.

So, the street-level spikes aren’t new; they’re outside stores and businesses far beyond the ones that sparked the outcry in London. In China, a prohibitive stretch of concrete spikes have been installed under city bridges, well-known sleeping spots for people with other choice but to sleep outside. In Germany, a designer coined an idea for a pay-per-use bench that grows spikes unless the user feeds it money to make them disappear. I’d hate to lose track of time in a good book; it’d be a pain in the posterior!

Jokes aside, these spikes—and the fact that they’re cropping up all over the world—speak to a larger global issue: how do housed and homeless people sleeping rough share space in society?

Shelter, not spikes

I’m inspired by the benches designed by Spring Advertising for RainCity Housing in Vancouver this year. The benches, in my opinion, do a great job at drawing attention to the fact that benches in public spaces are a necessary source of shelter for people in desperate situations.

Spring designed two benches for RainCity. One bench converts into a shelter—way more useful than spikes. The other uses glow-in-the-dark paint to portray different messages in the night and day. “This is a bench,” the bench reads during the day. 

“This a bedroom,” the bench reads at night.

Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable

Last year, Timothy P. Schmalz’s street art depicting Jesus Christ as homeless person also raised controversy. His bronze statue of Jesus asleep on a bench was rejected by various churches in Toronto and New York before finding a home at Regis College, although a wooden version of the same statue was well received by Pope Francis at the Vatican. The same statue raised controversy in Davidson, North Carolina when it was placed outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. Jerry Dawson, a local resident, wrote the following in a letter to the editor:

My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench. It is also about walking by this sculpture at night and passing within inches of the grim reaper. These are the impressions that this sculpture gives.

I have stepped over actual homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk in New York City and not been as creeped out as I am walking past this sculpture. 

I’ll let that letter speak for itself, but if that is the reaction to a statue, it’s not surprising to see Southwark’s response to an actual homeless person. NIMBY-ism is alive and well.

Solutions? Create more affordable housing by either building more housing or providing rent supplements. Develop programming that supports the needs of someone moving into housing, especially for Housing First programs. Don’t penalize or criminalize people for being homeless. Improve discharge planning from hospitals or correctional facilities. Support youth aging out of care, and child welfare.

It’s up to all of us to speak up and speak out. If we don’t want to see homeless people in public spaces, we need to work to end homelessness; they’d rather have their own place to go, too.

Tanya Gulliver is the Research Coordinator for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) based at York University. The COH works to mobilize research evidence to have a bigger impact on ending homelessness in Canada. She is also a PhD student at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies looking at community resiliency and recovery after catastrophic disasters. From 2003-2010, Tanya taught the Homelessness in Canadian Society course at Ryerson University. Tanya was on the management team and staff of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She is co-founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial. A version of this article originally appeared on

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