Social exclusion in urban public spaces

11 July 2016 | Mirja Brand


Urban public space and defensive architecture at More London Riverside, London, UK. | Photo: Mirja Brand

We all live and move in space every day, yet we tend to forget how much this space can influence and direct our movements, our behaviour and even our way of thinking. Once we take a closer look at our surroundings, however, we might notice just how frequently spatial restrictions can be found in public space and how they affect us or others. In which way do these restrictions shape our life in public?

Defensive architecture

Anti-skateboarding devices; urban space; More London Riverside

Anti-skateboarding devices near Tower Bridge, at More London Riverside, London, UK. | Photo: Mirja Brand

A term coined in relation to the work by Oscar Newman on “Defensible space” (1972), initially intended for crime prevention in residential environments by communities and residents, defensive or defensible architecture restricts certain kinds of activities in public spaces. The following quote from Newman’s work highlights some important aspects:

“Design can make it possible for both inhabitant and stranger to perceive that an area is under the undisputed influence of a particular group, that they dictate the activity taking place within it, and who its users are to be.”

Designed to prohibit certain activities in public space, defensive architecture, also called ‘hostile architecture’, can shape and affect the diversity of spaces as it limits the possibilities of life in public, i.e. performing certain kinds of activities or behaviour, such as skateboarding, rough sleeping, walking, sitting or in some cases simply being in a specific space. Mostly targeting rough sleepers, certain forms of defensive architecture have recently received a lot of attention as measures such as ‘anti-homeless spikes’ have led to a public outcry and in some cases to a successful removal by activists or public campaigns. These metal spikes are designed to prevent anyone from inhabiting a certain space. Defensible architecture can take many different forms, from ‘anti-skateboarding devices’ to ‘wave benches’, these designs target certain types of activities or behaviour.

Def architecture 4

More anti-skateboarding devices at More London Riverside, London, UK. | Photo: Mirja Brand

How can defensive architecture lead to social exclusion?

Def architecture 3

Defensive architecture: benches designed to prevent lying down in front of the Royal Courts of Justice, London, UK. | Photo: Mirja Brand

Inherent in the process of developing, planning, and designing restrictions on space seem to be prior assumptions about how people behave, what kind of people behave in which way and who people are.

These are fundamentally assumptions about human nature, made by local authorities, governments, property owners and private businesses.

By targeting specific groups of people or specific types of behaviour, like skateboarding or rough sleeping, and by making assumptions about different kinds of people, they tend to exclude not only marginalised groups but also others such as disabled people or the elderly, who might find themselves with limited seating possibilites. This is why these measures have also been called ‘anti-human’ by some. Dictating who is welcome to a specific public space creates spatial segregation. This has the effect of limiting the possibility of how a space can be used and who is allowed access.

Iain Borden, professor of architecture and urban culture at UCL, argues that these kinds of measures “suggested we are only republic citizens to the degree that we are either working or consuming goods directly. So it’s OK, for example, to sit around as long as you are in a cafe or in a designated place where certain restful activities such as drinking a frappucino should take place but not activities like busking, protesting or skateboarding”.

Space: physical reality with social implications

da_Nils Norman

Spikes outside a bank in London, UK. | Photo: Nils Norman

By looking at space as an inherently social concept, we can draw attention to how space is always negotiated, defined, and redefined by different actors. Beyond the physical reality of space lies an inherently social nature that influences our actions and relationships towards each other.

Space as a social concept allows us to examine these social implications. If marginalised groups (rough sleepers, skateboarders, etc.) seem to be less welcome to certain public spaces than others, we have to ask ourselves why this is the case. Why is access restricted?

Public spaces should be equally accessible to everyone, regardless of their social status, purchasing power or age. By regulating behaviour in public, spatial segregation undermines our right to move freely. It regulates not only certain types of activities or behaviour, but also general social behaviour by directing our movements and influencing our ways of behaving.


Written and researched by Mirja Brand, Resolution:Possible Researcher

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