In the past two weeks, three sets of “homeless spikes” –- metal knobs installed to discourage people from sitting or sleeping in public locations -– outside private properties in the U.K. were removed by their owners. These decisions came after widespread protests, both online and in meatspace –- one activist group was even reported pouring concrete on a set of spikes in London.
One of the removed sets of spikes was outside a bank, another outside an expensive apartment building, and another outside Tesco's, a grocery store chain. Protests online promised to boycott the store, while physical protests were also organized. The group taking credit for vandalizing the spikes, the London Black Revolutionaries, has not commented to a news organization on the connection between race, class, homelessness, and the passive aggression of private property owners in the city, but it's a line of thought that's hard to ignore.
Homeless spikes are only one of a growing number of tools being used by both private and public designers to keep “undesirable” people out of the public eye. It's not exactly a new idea –- fencing off parks and instituting opening hours is meant to keep people from using the park at night, for whatever purpose.* You can always invoke the specter of drug dealers and prostitution to make these measures seem more legitimate. Setting aside the issue of whether those activities should be criminalized, making public space less accessible impacts vulnerable social groups, particularly the homeless.
Artists like the French group Survival have posted photos of dozens of different devices for keeping people from sitting or sleeping in corners of Paris. Barriers to “rough sleeping” or loitering are not always as obvious as spikes. People roll off barrel-shaped seating; they can't lie down on chairs that have replaced benches; and strategically placed prickly plants can make a public garden very unpleasant to nap in.
Horrifying fact: in the U.S., more homeless people are targets of violent homicide than any other class of people. Being homeless is a uniquely vulnerable position – not only are homeless people lacking physical resources and a human support structure, they are more likely to suffer from mental illness and be the victims of extremely negative stereotypes. This is not a group of people that can afford to have what few resources are available yanked out from underneath them.
But homeless spikes are bad news even if you're not homeless. They change the city to the detriment of everyone who passes through. Jane Jacobs, a pioneer of urban studies, was one of the first to explain why certain areas of a city feel more inviting, and are in fact statistically safer, than other areas. Pre-Jacobs, many architects and philosophers had developed ideas about how to plan a healthy, safe city –- but most of these schemes didn't come from observing how real cities worked.** This type of city model unfortunately gave birth to many of the worst public housing projects in the U.K. and U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s.
Jacobs observed that the safety and comfort of an urban area didn't just depend on the people living in the neighborhood, but also how it is planned and built. Jacobs proposed that the safest areas in cities are places with “eyes on the street,” that is, places where there are a wide variety of people occupying the public space at all times of day. She noted that a lot of public housing was pretty much designed to fail, at least as far as safety goes. Large parts of these buildings, though public, were secluded, with bad visibility, and there no draws for people outside to pass through, in the form of stores or cultural institutions. These design factors created a highly isolated place with few witnesses to everyday life. Her ideas were revolutionary in a time when most people attributed the failure of public housing exclusively to racist and classist prejudices.
The relationship between how city public spaces are physically configured and how people use them has been supported by other research. The more well-connected and visible city spaces are, the more people tend to be in them. But there is also a correlation between less well-connected spaces and “antisocial behavior” and crime. Of course there are many factors involved, but places that more people can access and that more people can see tend to have lower rates of crime. By adding in spikes to discourage “dangerous” or “unsightly” people from hanging around, private property owners are actually discouraging everyone from lingering, which –- ironically -– probably makes the areas around their property inherently less safe.
Physical “homeless deterrents” don't just impact the safety of a neighborhood. Many who research city development have found that neighborhoods that cater only to a narrow demographic lack economic resilience and are more likely to decay.*** Areas with just one industry or just one kind of store become ghost towns when that business becomes obsolete. Neighborhoods with just one type of resident are deserted when they lose their “cool factor” or their property values drop.
Economically diverse areas survive longer and are less likely to fail disastrously. But spikes reflect the attitude that cities should concern themselves with the needs of only the most privileged. They show that the only okay uses of public space are the ways the wealthiest people use public space –- for example, walking to and from their cars on their way to shop.
Making public space less accessible also keeps out young people, disabled people, students, elderly, and the poor –- all groups who are less likely to have their own private space. When a bank installs spikes on a ledge outside the window, they prevent homeless people from sleeping there, but they also keep an 80-year-old man from resting there to catch his breath, or a group of high schoolers from taking a break to discuss a math test.
Adding spikes sends an unspoken message about which people are welcome, and which people are not. By narrowing the group of people who get to use public space to a handful of the most privileged, business owners and city officials are sabotaging the longterm health of a neighborhood for the sake of the comfort of a few.
Even worse is that, by forcing homeless people to make use of less-visible spaces, these design choices are pushing the most vulnerable into the less-safe parts of the city -– places where no one has to look at them or witness it when bad things happen to them.
Homeless spikes will change our cities in quantifiable ways for the worse. They create spaces where people have no reason to linger and cut off routes of access to other spaces, both of which are characteristics of the most dangerous areas. They also narrow the demographic of people who use a given area of the city, undermining the economic future of that place. But the biggest reason homeless spikes matter is because they represent the attitude that not everyone deserves to take up public space, not everyone deserves to be seen in public, and not everyone deserves to be safe in public. And that is absolutely not okay.
* A good overview on the recent history of homeless deterrent urban design can be read here.
** And, in fact, a lot of classic city planning ideas rely on scary ideas of complete social control. Anthony Vidler's "Scenes of the Street" covers a variety of Utopian city ideas, from a French salt factory in the 1700s that was meant to keep its workers in perfect Christian chastity, to the wide variety of Modernist architects who believed that if only the unenlightened masses could look at TREES they would promptly cease to be unenlightened (and poor and dirty). In all fairness, a lot of these ideas were based on genuine concern about the unsanitary and dangerous conditions prevalent in most contemporaneous cities.
*** The necessity of economic diversity is another one of Jane Jacobs' touchstones. The dangers of mono-industrial cities and mono-racial neighborhoods are covered pretty thoroughly in any detailed history of the economic collapse of Detroit. More recent researchers, (e.g. Thomas Sieverts), have focused on how cities' historic zones are gradually destroyed when they are exclusively dedicated to tourists and shopping.