Roberts: Design out of reach: Architecture created to shoo homeless people away
This file photo shows bus benches in Los Angeles that include bars designed to deter homeless people from sleeping on the seats. Photo courtesy of Curbed Los Angeles/Getty Images.

When I studied architecture years ago, the assigned design projects typically involved creating spaces or structures that benefited people. In our intensive workshops, we designed imaginary public spaces, furniture made out of recycled goods and housing for the poor built from local materials.

During our presentations we had to defend our designs by how the environment and users benefitted. Most of our theoretical architectural spaces were colorful, geometric structures that lived in our imaginations.

In reality, you can walk into a Design Within Reach store to experience modern, people-friendly residential products created by top designers. Colorful dining chairs, trendy coffee tables and elegant sofas fill the stores’ floors. For budding designers, having one’s designs showcased in such a store is the epitome of success.

Imagine, however, if an architectural school had a class on how to design public spaces that would drive homeless people away. Although such classes might seem bizarre, these designs are actually occurring.

In London, metal spikes have been placed in the ground in front of an apartment building so people (i.e. “homeless” people) cannot sleep there. They’re called “homeless spikes.” In Montreal, similar spikes were installed outside of a bookstore.

Many public spaces have benches with armrests for each individual seat. Although they may appear to be designed for comfort, in reality they are designed so that people (i.e., “homeless” people) cannot lie down and sleep on them.

In Florida, benches are designed with a slant to prevent people from sleeping on them. Granted, some people in Florida expressed their outrage. In the city of Los Angeles, some councilmembers also expressed outrage over unfriendly bench designs.

In Japan, some public benches are also designed to be uncomfortable. Yes, uncomfortable. That way, no one will want to sit or sleep on them for long periods of time.

Then, there is the use of sounds. Not the trendy tunes piping into a restaurant or shopping center to make a space feel pleasant. On the contrary, some are weaponizing noise to make public spaces unpleasant. Just this week, I was in a city meeting where people shared with its mayor that a store was playing high frequency noise toward its surrounding streets to disperse homeless encampments. They call it The Mosquito.

Some 7-Eleven stores are doing the opposite — they are playing loud classical music onto their streets to deter homeless people, as if people struggling with poverty don’t like nice music.

These sonic weapons are part of the war against homeless people.

I can only imagine an architecture class that specifically teaches its students how to shoo away people who are homeless.

You may have heard of smart houses, where lights, air conditioning, stereos and even coffee machines are controlled by smartphones. It’s not a stretch to imagine “smart public spaces” where homeless people are driven away by new technology.

Metal spikes are integrated into concrete sidewalks and plazas, so if people lie down on them the spikes automatically pop out. Public seating is designed to knock people off if they lie down for longer than 15 minutes.

Sensors are installed so that, if someone lies down, blinding lights and alarms go off to wake them up. And automatic sprinklers water the plants as well as the sidewalks if people are sitting or sleeping for too long.

“Alexa… turn on the sprinklers!”

“Hey Siri… play the Mosquito noise machine!”

Sounds like a perfect curriculum for budding designers of public spaces. Maybe such ideas could be part of the new technology for smart houses and design convenience for homeowners as well as protection against homeless people.

Of course, rather than creating architectural weapons against homelessness, it would certainly be easier to simply design enough affordable housing so that people do not have to sleep in public spaces at all.

Now that would be the ultimate “smart public space” approach.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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