Image Credit: Indesign Live
As of 2021, the population of New York City is 8.5 million people. The city is cramped and citizens value communal spaces. There are countless plazas, parks, and public transportation stops that should be welcoming and comfortable for all people. Instead, urban planners have created details, invisible to the privileged eye, that make these public spaces hostile to the people who need them most.
“Though it was in the works for decades, hostile architecture in NYC really got started during Mayor Giuliani’s ‘quality of life’ campaign,” said urbanist and Grace alumna Andrea Marpillero- Colomina.
In June 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani held a press conference announcing his intention to crack down on panhandling, jaywalking, graffiti, public drinking, prostitution, and the homelessness crisis; or, more accurately, the homeless.
Giuliani instructed the police to search parks and other public areas to detain and move homeless people to shelters, while also implementing a 90-day cap on how long someone can stay in a shelter. According to critics, the goal was to hide the homeless rather than to assist them.
As gentrification accelerated in the 2010s, the city found itself with a higher homeless population than ever, with a low estimate of 58,000 homeless people in shelters as of July 2015. Around that same time, benches throughout the city have been discretely removed to stop homeless from lying on them. They are continually being replaced with seating designs that were specially created, not only to discourage people from taking a seat but to completely prevent them from lying down and likely taking much-needed rest.
Metal or stone benches with clustered armrests or no backrests are cropping up more and more often. Ms. Marpillero-Colomina uses Astor Place in the Bowery as an example of a place that “takes away the invitation to linger.”
Astor Place is central to the neighborhood community and tourist experience, yet it is not only unwelcoming but uncomfortable.
“It is over-policed and lacks privacy,” said Ms. Marpillero-Colomina. “Spaces like that create the feeling that whatever you are doing is somehow ‘bad behavior.’”
Central Park’s sloping perimeter walls deter sitting and make lying down impossible. Similarly, the benches next to the walls have no backs and are just far enough from the walls that one cannot even lean on them.
In 2017, at bus stops and Brooklyn train stations, the MTA implemented “leaning bars” as part of its $72 million “Enhanced Station Initiative.” On February 5th, 2021, the NYC Transit sparked conflict by tweeting that “benches were removed from stations to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.” In response, one Twitter user imitated the account, “We have inconvenienced you and made the station more inaccessible to the pregnant, disabled, and elderly, but you must understand that lets us inflict further misery on people without homes.”
“Removing benches conveys that this is a place to leave quickly, so they do,” said Ms. Marpillero-Colomina. “Making the space more welcoming for everyone is the best strategy to cope with ‘undesirable’ activities. The bench is kind of a pivotal point. Will the design inspire fear or communicate hospitality?”
Many plazas, such as East 56th Street and Third Avenue in Midtown, are left empty. Without chairs or tables, the space is uninviting and appears as though it is a private space, not a public one. Metal studs or spikes line the pavement on sidewalks and in plazas; bolts or barbs block the use of ledges, fire hydrants, and standpipes for sitting; and “no loitering” signs flood the city. These are barriers and their message is: “Don’t stick around, we don’t want you in our backyard,” said Ms. Marpillero-Colomina.
“These designs are not just hostile to people they don’t want there,” she said. The pregnant, injured, disabled, elderly, and children can tire quickly and often need a place to sit and rest even for just a moment.
“Although I already had some idea as an urbanist,” said Ms. Marpillero-Colomina, “being pregnant truly opened my eyes to how cruel some parts of the city are.”
In 2022 (fiscal year), 102,656 different homeless adults and children slept in the NYC Department of Homeless Services shelter system, not including the many who were unable to use a shelter. Some homeless people have even agreed that they feel safer living on the street than in a shelter. Shelters are overcrowded and understaffed, and people need a place to feel safe and comfortable in a bustling city.
The city government does not invest in its people. Hostile architecture makes the city cold and unwelcoming, for all people. To take action, start by emailing or calling your local district representative. At Grace, our local representative is Carlina Rivera at District2@council.nyc.gov.
Veronica Hatch ’25, the author, is a staff writer for The Grace Gazette.