A Field Guide To The 'Weapons' Of Hostile Architecture In NYC

Does this bench look friendly?
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Does this bench look friendly? Photo courtesy of Interboro

Earlier this month, Ya-Ting Liu was walking through Fulton Street Station when she noticed something different. The domed transportation hub in Lower Manhattan, which opened in 2014, has been praised by architecture and public space enthusiasts for its airy and light-filled design surrounded by glass and an oculus skylight.

Liu, who commutes to work in Manhattan, particularly liked the low ledges by the tall windows which look out onto the streetscape. She would often come there to sit when she was in between meetings or looking for a place to take a call.

But on that day, she saw that a row of steel stanchions had been installed to rope off the area. A former student of urban planning, Liu knew exactly what was going on: it was an example of “hostile” architecture or design that is meant to discourage lingering and other types of public behaviors.

She immediately tweeted a photo, and she wasn't the only one to notice the change.

Liu said she interpreted MTA's message as, “You can’t be here. Don’t hang around, keep it moving.”

As New York grapples with its constant demand for public spaces, some residents are objecting to the restrictive and exclusionary designs and policies that they say reflect an increasingly hostile city. And as more developers build amenities in exchange for greater density, there is increased scrutiny on what passes for free and open public spaces.

“There are these battles of access that often play out through architecture and urban design,” said Tobias Armborst, an Brooklyn-based architect and urban designer who, along with his colleagues at his firm Interboro Partners, wrote a 2017 book about the topic called The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion. “They seem neutral at first, but then they become political.”

The book examines more than 150 tools or, as he calls them, “weapons” employed by urban architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, and activists to police the built environment.

Central Park's slanted perimeter walls. (Photo by Jen Carlson / Gothamist)

Hostile design is an age-old concept (just look at the slanted perimeter walls around Central Park), and according to Armborst, it's not restricted to built structures. It can range from an overtly oppressive policy like redlining to one more subtly irritating like the piping of classical music into a public plaza to deter skateboarders.

Images of hostile design have flourished on the internet. Some of the best examples can be found on the Instagram account named @hostiledesign_nyc. Its creator, a 30-year-old native New Yorker who gave his name as Jeremy C., told Gothamist he started the account after coming across the concept of hostile design and then deciding he wanted to highlight them.

"Once you start seeing them, you start seeing them everywhere," he said.

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In cities, some of the most reoccurring expressions of hostile design can be found in public seating. In one of the most controversial examples, in 2017, as part of its $72 million “Enhanced Station Initiative.” the MTA introduced “leaning bars,” planks of wood bolted to a wall, at the 53rd Street station in Brooklyn after saying it had researched the “best practices” of other transit systems. Deployed at city bus stops as well, the design was described as a supplement to—rather than as a replacement for—benches, and offering accommodation to people who have difficulty sitting and standing up from a lower bench.

New leaning "benches" at the 28th Street Station (Jen Carlson / Gothamist)

But some New Yorkers were puzzled by the new option, while others attacked the structures as yet another Tactic in the "war on sitting."

Although city officials might argue that critics are reading too much into what is a functional design, Nidhi Gulati, an architect and urban researcher for the Project for Public Spaces, said that in 2019, "It’s impossible that these are created unintentionally."

And as evidenced with the changes at Fulton Station, New Yorkers are increasingly questioning the decisions around managing public spaces.

An MTA spokesman told Gothamist that the barriers were installed in response to several assaults as well as a shattered window that the agency said would cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace. He said there were also more than 150 complaints to 311 since December for "various NYC Transit rule violations."

But Gulati, an architect and urban researcher for the Project for Public Spaces, said those reasons were not acceptable by themselves. "Have [they] thought about the number of people who benefited from it?" she asked.

She explained that people tend to gravitate toward window and ledges because they allow them to feel that they are out of the way, providing a sense of shelter and comfort. Overall, she said there are not enough places to sit inside subway stations, and the MTA should be working to expand seating.

"It’s surprising that in a city that thrives on walking, how few places there are to sit down," she said.

The issue also strikes at the notion of equity. At Fulton Station, for example, Liu observed that paying customers can sit at one of the tables run by the restaurants while the window ledges were a free perk. "The city is lacking spaces that can allow people to just sit and relax and enjoy themselves that doesn’t come with a barrier [of] entry associated with money," she said.

These were placed temporarily on 32nd between Broadway and 7th in 2015. (Gothamist)

Although all cities deploy hostile architecture, Armborst said New York City is a particularly bad offender, in part because of its sheer density, but also because of the prevalence of privately owned public spaces. The POPS, as they are now known, were pioneered in New York City as part of a rezoning effort in the 1960s to encourage developers to build public spaces in exchange for added density for their projects. But they've also been ripe for abuse. In 2017, City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that 182 POPS—more than half—had broken the rules by either restricting public access, including the flagrant use of signs that said "For Private Use Only," or by failing to provide required amenities like seating and trees.

At Hudson Yards, Curbed writer Karrie Jacobs wrote about the tyranny of the no sitting-rule within the Vessel, the sculptural centerpiece of developer Related's public space, and the larger meaning of the discomfort it creates. From the story:

"Ultimately, however, the difference between a real public place and a pretender is how people behave. Are they comfortable? Do they make the place their own? Can they come and go as they please? The simple ability to stop, to linger, to sit and observe, 'to plonk down,' is a form of ownership, even if it’s temporary. Unfortunately, requiring a ticket to enter sends a clear signal; this space doesn’t belong to you."

Another flashpoint in cities has been business improvement districts, which offer additional services for public spaces but which also often seek to exert control over them. One such battle is currently playing on 34th Street, where vendors have accused the 34th Street Partnership, the nonprofit that serves as a business improvement district around Herald Square, of intentionally placing large planters and other street furniture to force them off valuable curb space.

In these cases and many others, Armborst said that what it boils down to is: "Who is considered to be a good member of the public?"

Along those lines, homeless advocates have been among the most vocal opponents of hostile design. As the city deals with a housing crisis and an unprecedented rise in homelessness, the public environment has become increasingly unwelcome to places where the homeless have traditionally found shelter: spikes along window ledges, staircases, alcoves and fire hydrants. In 2014, the Strand was accused of using its sprinkler system to drive away homeless people from sleeping beneath its iconic red awning.

Even more ubiquitous is the rise of armrests inside benches. While these can seem like an amenity, they also effectively prevent people from lying down.

“It’s hostile but with a friendly face,” Armborst said.

NYC's classic subway bench, from the 2015 opening of the Hudson Yards station. (Jen Chung / Gothamist)

Bench on Upper East Side (Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist)

Gulati argued that truly public spaces are ones in which users are invited to "customize their experience." And in many cases, humans will find a way to foil the most hostile designs, as suggested by urbanist William Whyte, who while working in the city's Planning Commission in 1969 began documenting how people use public spaces.

In 1979, his findings were released as a book and accompanying documentary called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. In the film, a man confronted with spikes responds by simply placing a towel over them.

"We’re very resilient," Gulati said. "If you need to sit down, you’re going to sit down."

Which was exactly what some people at Fulton Station recently did.

UPDATE: The story has been revised to credit Interboro Partners as one of the authors of the book The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion.

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