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Why Hostile Architecture is Bad for Our City’s Health

By Dr Evie Kendal, public health scientist and bioethicist, Swinburne University 

I’ve been lied to my whole life about homelessness.  

I was told the people I saw sleeping rough were there because they chose to be, because they couldn’t obey the rules of the many shelters that were waiting to offer them help. I was told never to give money, because “It will just get spent on drugs,” and that if someone I met rejected an offer of food instead, they couldn’t genuinely be struggling. 

But most importantly, I was told homelessness was a “them” problem, not an “us” problem. That it could never happen to me, or anyone I personally know.  

This is untrue. Most of us are just a few misfortunes away from homelessness. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a bed waiting for every person who needs one, and food is not the only thing humans need to survive, either physically or spiritually. 

But the lies we’re told about homelessness serve a purpose. For one, they help defend the measures used to exclude rough sleepers from accessing public spaces. We don’t want to admit that when we force people out of city centres, business districts, parks, and train stations, there isn’t “somewhere better” for them to go.  

“Hostile architecture” refers to a strategic type of urban design that aims to control people’s behaviour and stop certain groups from using public spaces. Classic examples include ground spikes, sloped surfaces, armrests on public benches to prevent people from lying down, and “skate stopper” studs to deter skateboarders. 

These design choices often seek to protect corporate interests – a business might install ground spikes outside their shop windows, for instance, so customers are not confronted by visible homelessness when they could be spending money. The spikes send a clear signal that some people are not welcome and should be elsewhere. Hidden from public view. 

But when rough sleepers are excluded from public areas, there is typically no safe “elsewhere” for them to go. In some areas of Melbourne, there are simply no local crisis beds to refer people to. And the City of Melbourne website reminds us that visible homelessness is “just the tip of the iceberg,” with an estimated 21 other people experiencing homelessness for every rough sleeper in Victoria. 

Hostile architecture cannot inspire people to seek alternative accommodation that does not exist. It just makes an already traumatic situation even harder to cope with. 

This “anti-homeless” design has been linked to negative mental health effects and safety concerns. One obvious health consequence of reducing safe resting spots is sleep deprivation, which can have serious health impacts. Some homelessness services believe hostile architecture is contributing to non-emergency use of already over-stretched hospital facilities.  

Forcing rough sleepers out of well-lit public spaces also puts them at greater risk of violence, including sexual violence. And excluding people from warmer central-city areas in winter can expose them to cold-related conditions such as frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia. 

Hostile architecture may also contribute to stigma, including at the regulatory level, with governments often complicit in driving homeless citizens “out of sight, out of mind”.  

If we’re safely housed ourselves, why should we care about hostile architecture? For one, any group can find themselves the target of exclusionary design if their behaviour is suddenly deemed “undesirable”. Secondly, we have ethical obligations to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, who have a right to access public spaces. Third, even if we’re not the intended target group, we are all targets for the behavioural manipulation hostile design entails. In most cases, we’re also being manipulated not to recognise these design choices for what they truly are. Finally, we all suffer the discomforts hostile architecture inflicts. Uncomfortable bus shelter benches are uncomfortable for everyone.  

Hostile architecture’s defenders claim that it reduces crime rates or makes areas feel safer. Not only do these claims unfairly link homelessness with criminal activity, but research shows that increasing green spaces and creating community gardens are better ways to achieve these goals and promote a healthy city. 

With housing insecurity on the rise, boosting government investment in social housing is a more ethical, inclusive, and effective way to improve life in our city. It would also give rough sleepers “somewhere better” to go: an actual home. 

Hostile architecture is a blunt instrument that hurts the most vulnerable members of our community, harming all of us in the process. And let’s not forget, misfortune can strike anyone. “The vulnerable” could be any of us. 

I’ve been lied to my whole life about homelessness.  

And so have you. 

Dr Evie Kendal is a bioethicist and public health scientist at Swinburne University of Technology. She heads the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Emerging Technologies (ELSIET) research group at the Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute. 





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