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Is urban design intended to be hostile?




A saxophonist sits on a bench designed to deter sleeping in Washington Square Park in New York City.
A saxophonist sits on a bench designed to deter sleeping in Washington Square Park in New York City.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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Pink lights that emphasize blemishes, curvy benches that deter sleepers, classical music that annoys teenagers, these are not simply bad designs, they are intentionally hostile designs aimed to manipulate certain behaviors in public.

A bench, for example, offers a place to rest between bus stops, but it could also be used for sleeping. If an urban planner wishes to deter snoozing in public spaces, placing multiple arm rests can make laying down very uncomfortable. This “hostile” design thereby restricted the use of such public goods to its “designated” function.

Here is an example of a textured pole in Seoul, South Korea. The texture prevents stickers and other items from being attached.
Here is an example of a textured pole in Seoul, South Korea. The texture prevents stickers and other items from being attached.
Courtesy of Selena Savic and Gordon Savičić

According to a most up-to-date version of the book "Unpleasant Design," these intentional modifications can be powerful at altering our behavior, but in doing so, they may unfairly target certain social demographics. Diving deeper, these deterrents also send a demoralizing message – while tackling the symptom of problem such as homelessness, hostile designs offer nothing in solving societal issues at large.  

How do you evaluate the goals of these designs? Do you think they do a public service to the community? Or do they frustrate and upset users across the spectrum?

Cobblestones make it difficult for women wearing high heels to walk on, and often cause sprained ankles.
Cobblestones make it difficult for women wearing high heels to walk on, and often cause sprained ankles.
Courtesy of Selena Savic and Gordon Savičić

Guests:

Selena Savich, architect and designer and the co-editor of the book "Unpleasant Design;" she tweets at @jazoza

Damien Newton, founder and editor of Streetsblog LA; he tweets at @DamienTypes