BikePortland recently reported that a property owner in downtown Portland had erected a row of more than two dozen bike racks along a public sidewalk. Around the same time, Willamette Week reported that a group of residents in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood set up planter boxes along a street next to Laurelhurst Park, where people had been camping before a recent sweep. Both appear to be examples of hostile architecture, also known as defensive architecture, meant to deter people experiencing homelessness from camping on the sidewalk. Michael Mehaffy is a researcher and architect who focuses on public space. He says he sees hostile architecture as the end result of systemic failures. We hear from Mehaffy about how the accessibility of public space can reflect a city’s values.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Jenn Chávez: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Jenn Chávez. Recently, the news outlet BikePortland reported that a property owner in downtown Portland had erected a row of more than two dozen bike racks along a public sidewalk around the same time Willamette Week reported that a group of residents in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood set up large planter boxes along the street next to Laurelhurst Park. Both of these were done without permits from the city. These appear to be examples of hostile architecture, also sometimes called defensive architecture. It’s meant to deter people experiencing homelessness from camping in public spaces. Michael Mehaffy is a researcher and urban consultant who focuses on public space and he joins me now to talk more about this practice. Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael Mehaffy: Thank you, Jenn. Appreciate it.
Chávez: We’re so glad to have you with us today. So I just mentioned a few examples of what appear to be hostile architecture in Portland recently, but this practice is by no means new or unique to Portland. What are some other examples of this that you’ve seen?
Mehaffy: That’s right. Actually, hostile architecture has been around for a long time. I mean, you think about the spikes that are on the curbs that stop skateboarders, it’s intended to exclude certain people, which is why I’m frankly very concerned about it because [it’s] a way of targeting people who are trying to use public space in one form or another, whether it’s skateboarders or teenagers or loiterers - quote unquote - I think a lot of senior citizens would be considered loiterers, if they’re just sitting on the park feeding the birds.
My concern really is that public space is our commons. It’s the place that we share and we all come together and can be in the public together. And when we start to exclude people, whoever those people are, we’re eroding the public space and we’re really causing problems that I think we really need to look at much more carefully than we have.
Chávez: And I want to get a little bit further into this in just a minute. But first off, do you know what the argument is that people make in favor of building this type of infrastructure?
Mehaffy: It’s to control whatever is seen as a problem, whether it’s skateboarders leaving black marks on the sidewalk or teenagers gathering in a place where … often it’s the private property owners, the adjacent property owners who are putting up these barriers because they don’t like to have that population there for one reason or another. And then obviously homeless people are another whole category. That’s a much bigger issue these days.
Chávez: And when you walk down the street and see features like this ‒ you are someone who has expertise in urban planning and design ‒ what goes through your mind? What message does it send to you?
Mehaffy: I think it’s part of a broader problem of the erosion of public space, the privatization of public space. People who are essentially excluding other people from public space, and ultimately that means it’s not public space if some members of the public can’t use it. This is part of a broader problem that we have really nationally and internationally, is the way public space is being eroded and privatized and a lot of it is just because of the way we use cars so much rather than getting out and walking and using public space. But a lot of it also is this kind of hostile architecture and exclusionary architecture where you’re essentially controlling the public space, especially by a private interest that’s adjacent.
Chávez: And you’re getting at one of the questions that I had by talking about how this is in public space by a definition and it affects access to public space overall. One thing I’m particularly wondering about is accessibility, for example, for people with disabilities or mobility issues. Is accessibility like that a concern when it comes to things that are installed in public right of way?
Mehaffy: They certainly can be. You mentioned the bike racks. I’m not sure about that example specifically, but the ultimate definition of public spaces, that everybody can access it, that they’re not excluded whether they’re in a wheelchair or whether they’re for whatever reason. The extent to which we make public space more difficult to access through whatever means, we erode the public space. As a researcher in public space I think that’s more serious than we recognize, because the public space is really the engine of the creativity of cities. It’s the way we sort of interact with people that we don’t know, and ultimately it is the creativity of cities that occurs within the public spaces and within the nearby private spaces. And if we lose that, we’re losing something profoundly important.
Chávez: I understand that you were involved with the Goose Hollow neighborhood association for many years. That’s a local neighborhood association in Portland. Does your experience with that inform how you think about this issue?
Mehaffy: Well, certainly it does. I mean, let’s be clear that the homeless crisis is untenable. It’s a terrible situation for everybody, and especially for the homeless, so let’s start with that. And let’s recognize that yes, there are very negative impacts from people being homeless on everybody else. Obviously, if they don’t have a place to urinate and they have to urinate on the street and so on and so forth, all the other impacts from people being homeless. But my concern when we focus on hostile architecture as a way to deal with this challenge is that we’re really focusing on the wrong end of the problem. We’re focusing on essentially
a system that’s already failed us, and we really need to back up and re-focus on the failures that got people into homelessness in the first place and tackle those in a more systematic way. I like to think we’re putting a tax on the deck chairs on the Titanic, rather than dealing with the iceberg that’s out there, and that’s the homeless crisis.
Chávez: When we look at hostile architecture, it’s not focused on reducing homelessness, right? It is focused on deterring the presence of unhoused people in specific locations, moving them elsewhere. So, with your background and expertise, do you see ways that urban planning can address homelessness with a more solutions-based approach that looks more at what you’re talking about, about the root causes of homelessness rather than the result?
Mehaffy: Absolutely. This is what to me is really tragic, and I’m somebody who’s lived in Portland for a lot of years. I love Portland, I care about the city, but I also think we’ve really sort of lost the plot. We’ve become complacent. We’ve allowed ourselves to tell the story of our successes ‒ and there have been real successes ‒ from the planning successes of the 1990s and on into the 2000s, and so on. But maybe we haven’t been listening enough to other cities, and other examples of where they’ve tackled homelessness and had much better results. There’s an old saying that you can’t learn what you think you already know, and if we in Portland think we think that we’re a great city and we don’t need to up our game and learn from other cities and other countries, then I think we’ve got a problem.
Some of your listeners may have seen the article in the New York Times about Houston removing 25,000 people from homelessness, that really effectively reduced homelessness by 63% since 2011 and using what they call a “Housing First” strategy. Getting people into housing, getting a lot of people working together in a lot of agencies and institutions. I think we need to do that. We need to do a better job collaborating on our challenges and working together to see these things happen.
Chávez: Well, Michael, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this issue.
Mehaffy: I’m glad to.
Chávez: I’ve been speaking with Michael Mehaffy, a researcher and urban consultant who focuses on public space.
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