War on poverty gone too far: Hostile architecture

Alan Cai

April 19, 2024

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson launched the “War on Poverty,” a social programs initiative passed through legislation aimed at combating the nation’s then-19% poverty rate and giving the impoverished in America a stepping stone to advance into the middle class and experience their share in the American Dream. Sixty years later, America ostensibly seems to be continuing to wage a war on poverty, but this time punishing the impoverished for their socioeconomic status.

Hostile architecture is the practice of designing architecture with the intent of preventing certain activities deemed undesirable from occurring. Common examples include installing inconspicuous spikes next to planters to discourage sitting or sleeping, sloping or positioning unnecessary armrests on benches, removing benches as a whole and replacing them with standing backrests, and placing large items near steps to take up additional space. Many cities around the United States, including New York, Miami, Seattle, Charlotte, and other cities with significant homeless populations have implemented these otherwise difficult-to-notice modifications to their public infrastructure.

These features, although plausibly mildly successful in improving public order, are a complete and total embarrassment to our country, which purports itself to be a beacon of freedom and protector of the powerless. Indeed, by implementing such public measures, municipalities are making life difficult for the communities that are already among the most vulnerable in America without taking diligent steps to mitigate the impacts homelessness has upon many individuals. These actions send the message to affected communities that their survival and interests are unimportant to the city. This is inherently problematic as the dismissive implications of hostile infrastructure may demoralize individuals suffering from homelessness and make it even more difficult for them to get back on their feet and carve a successful economic path for themselves.

Although this article has thus far only acknowledged that individuals suffering from homelessness are harmed by hostile architecture, the negative impacts of the intentionally studded floors and curved benches reach far and wide. Many impoverished or socioeconomically underprivileged communities that are not homeless are also at a disadvantage when it comes to loitering-prevention infrastructure. Many such communities spend time outside of their homes in public spaces and would be greatly harmed by an inability to relax in public spaces.

Cities are not warzones; they are positive communities that build a positive environment and engender understanding and growth among their participants. Thus, it is quite counterproductive for municipal governments to litter public areas with spikes, signs, and bars designed for the sole and explicit purpose of restricting their own people. Loitering or sleeping in public is not a crime unless done in conjunction or to assist with a felony and it is imperative that these divisive practices be stopped.