‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out

Strips of sharp metal teeth run alongside a low garden wall on East 96th Street.

Metal bars divide a public bench on East 47th Street.

Ugly bolts line the ledges at a public plaza on East 56th Street.

These are all ways of saying “don’t make yourself at home” in public. This so-called hostile architecture has flourished in New York, even as the city has significantly added more public space in the last decade, including new plazas and parkland, pedestrian areas once used for cars and reclaimed industrial waterfront.

Proponents say this type of urban design is necessary to help maintain order, ensure safety and curb unwanted behavior such as loitering, sleeping or skateboarding.

But hostile architecture, in New York and other cities, has increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call “anti-homeless spikes” for targeting those who have nowhere else to go at a time when many cities are grappling with a homelessness crisis.

In New York, about 79,000 people are homeless, of which about 5 percent are believed to live on the street, according to federal estimates.

Hostile architecture can be as subtle as simply not providing a place to sit, as obvious as a wall or fence to keep people or animals out or as aggressive as metal studs embedded in pavement. These designs often go unnoticed in the busy cityscape.

“We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” said Jon Ritter, an architectural historian and a clinical associate professor at New York University.

Cities have long built walls and other defensive fortifications for protection. Even today, metal and concrete barriers are strategically placed around public buildings and plazas in Lower Manhattan and elsewhere to deter stray vehicles and guard against possible terror attacks. “What is hostile to some is defensive to others,” Mr. Ritter said.

Hostile architecture has also been an issue in some of New York’s more than 550 privately owned public spaces, which are required to be open to the public by their owners in return for the right to build larger towers.

The city has specifically prohibited “devices that inhibit seating” in privately owned public spaces since 2007, though armrests are allowed. But a 2017 audit by Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, found that more than half of the spaces at that time had violated various city requirements and failed to provide mandated amenities that could encourage public use.

Since then, the city has required regular inspections of privately owned public spaces to ensure more public access. They have visited 333 properties, of which, 193 were cited for violations, including spikes in seating areas, missing signs and other amenities.

Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and design who co-authored a 2000 book, “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience,” has documented an array of spikes, bars, railings and other obstructions on benches and ledges in these spaces on a website.

He has also found issues such as doormen who shooed people away and public spaces that are sealed off behind fences and gates, some of which are kept locked.

In a public atrium in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, a required marble bench had been removed and replaced with a kiosk selling Trump memorabilia. Mr. Kayden led the effort to get the bench returned.

“The irony that some public spaces actively discourage public use should not be lost on anyone,” Mr. Kayden said.

One lush public space with fountains, lawns and benches can be glimpsed behind a metal fence with a gate on East 70th Street. The Rudin Management Company, which owns the property, said the fence and gate, which is kept unlocked, were intended to keep playing children in so they do not run out in front of cars.

“The park is loved and appreciated by the community, and we have through the years made many improvements to make it even more accessible and welcoming,” said William C. Rudin, the chief executive and co-chairman of the company.

One especially ironic example can be found at a sprawling public plaza on East 56th Street and Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Not a single table or chair was in sight (seating is not required at most privately owned public spaces created before 1975). Office workers had to lean against a wall for a quick break.

“The message is ‘Don’t hang out here,’” said Sean Orlando, 44, who sat on the steps with his lunch. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a public space. It seems like they’re trying to keep people from using it.”

SL Green, which owns the plaza, declined to comment.

A couple blocks away, at East 47th Street, another plaza offered seating on gleaming wooden benches. But until recently, “no loitering” signs were prominently displayed on them. Mia Wagner, an actress, paused when she saw the sign.

“At what point am I loitering?” she said. “It makes me think twice about whether or not to sit, how long can I sit, and do I have to buy something so that I’m a valid squatter?”

Sage Realty, which manages the plaza, said it removed the “no loitering” signs in late September as soon as it learned there were concerns. “We never thought of them as hostile,” said Jonathan Kaufman Iger, Sage’s chief executive. “That’s not what we’re trying to convey to the community.”

Mr. Iger added that metal bars are used on some benches to deter skateboarding, which would damage the wood.

In an effort to create awareness about privately owned public spaces, a design competition was held this year to select a new logo that will be posted at every one of them.

Hostile designs in New York and elsewhere are also increasingly being called out on social media by those who believe that it goes too far.

As evidenced by the spikes along the UPS logo at a store on East 34th Street, even the pigeons are not safe.

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