Hiding Homelessness: Beyond Highway Walls and Uncomfortable Benches

Concrete spikes under a road bridge in Guangzhou, China. Imaginechina/REX

   After the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, you might have seen an article or two pass by on the topic of the “wall of shame”, this strategically placed wall on the edge of Rio’s highway. It was meant to hide its slums and shanty-towns like Nova Holanda and Maré from the views of supporters and athletes travelling to the Olympic Village. What seemed like an elegant short-term solution ended up bringing international attention to the issue of urban design at the service of hiding poverty. Bolstered by this initial interest, other articles started appearing: calling out spikes on the sidewalk, highly engineered park-benches, unwelcoming shopping-mall layouts and policies. In short, a momentary ‘hype’ towards the condemnation of hostile city planning took form. Yet to the displeasure of advocacy groups and civil liberties, much of that momentum stayed at that hype. No one prolonged this to ask the question of how is this possible? How come city councils can commission and allow hostile planning while underfunding anti-poverty measures? What are the consequences of such policies?

While the end product might seem absurd, the initial thoughts behind such urban projects are rooted in a pragmatic understanding of the use of public space. This is exemplified in the philosophy of ‘hostile architecture’, a design language that aims to form public spaces towards their intended use. In other words, hostile architecture seeks to plan cities in an effort to control how we interact with them. One notable manifestation of this is the design of urban benches, whether they have added armrests in-between each individual seating space or are designed to leave its user in a semi-standing position – as often seen in bus-stops around cities. These benches are made to promote their one intended use, providing temporary seating, and exclude all other possible uses. Following this approach, urban planning isn’t supposed to provide an answer to the lack of shelter for homeless individuals. Hostile architecture just seeks to make us use items in the way they are supposed to be used, simultaneously making public spaces safer and user-oriented. The blame is often incorrectly placed on the urban planners and their benches, while such attention is better spent on the cities that commission their work.

Rio’s ‘Wall of Shame” separating the Maré favela from the highway. plus55.imprensa.ws

How city councils come to implement such measures is a different story entirely. While the justification for hostile planning can be found in their duty to minimize anti-social behavior, the way in which they do so is often questionable at best. Where these policies fall through is when the given justification doesn’t match the final outcome of such urban design. In the case of the favela-walls in Rio de Janeiro, their official goal was to protect natural spaces and limit the growth of unsafe and illegal housing. Favela’s often tend to expand into unused green spaces, and their primitive construction leaves them vulnerable to collapsing in the case of storms. While the justification therefore seems to match an existing problem, the walls’ construction alongside highways also conveniently served the purpose of hiding Rio’s poorest areas. Furthermore, the excuses for the walls were also aestetic, as Antonio Pedro, tourism secretary for Rio put it, these walls served as ‘decoration’ for the city. Coupling this to the astronomical amounts of public spending diverted to the hosting of the Olympics, one can start to question whether Rio truly had public health and safety in mind.

But for those not in the business of hosting Olympic events, not much of their funding is actually diverted, cities pay as little as they can for these policies. When cities do finance such policies, the money put into developing hostile amenities is very little. They seek cost-effective ways to minimize anti-social behavior. This means that the allocated budget can often be justified. Yet in order to not pay for such measures themselves, they often leave the responsibility of preventing undesirable individuals from sleeping or sitting in public spaces to high-street store and companies. These will then install spikes and hire security guards to deter unwanted uses of their space. The shift in accountability gives way to more aggressive forms of hostile architecture. Private entities will often be a lot less mindful of the wellbeing of homeless individuals. While cities are given the accountability of providing alternate shelter whenever they invest in making a space unfit for shelter, private owners are exempt from such duties as long as they pay taxes funding such activities. But while private entities might contribute to decreasing the available shelter for individuals, they don’t provide increased funding for the assistance of such individuals. This creates both a discrepancy in accountability and an increased divide between available shelter and available funding. And while on a short-term homeless individuals have less available shelter in cities, the long-tern effects might seem to be even more daunting.

A homeless inhabitant of San Francisco waiting to be bussed out to a smaller city.
Rachael Garner for S.F. Examiner

Less places to stay in the city makes life even more unbearable than through the conditions of homelessness alone. One notable effect of an increasingly hostile environment has been the exodus of such individuals to the suburbs of big cities or towards smaller cities. And whether this is done voluntarily or through local government offering free bus rides out of town such as in a number of US metropoles, their displacement has a number of problematic outcomes. First of all, the areas and cities that come to house these displaced homeless populations have a much smaller capacity to handle them. Smaller communities have much less resources to house homeless individuals, they don’t have enough official shelter, food or services to provide basic aid. Therefore, when they flee big cities due to a more hostile climate, they also flee a bigger capacity of taking care of them. Furthermore, it causes a lack of concern and representation of the issue. Concern and politicization of homelessness is fostered by its visibility. If more people in major cities are faced with homeless individuals and see the effects of a lack of housing and shelter, more attention is given to them in media and subsequently in policy. A lack of this representation can not only lead to a misinterpretation of the diminishing amounts of homeless individuals in city centers.

Finally, it is important to recognize that this is not just an issue faced by highly developed cities under liberal rule. Hiding poverty and homelessness has always been a policy aim to make a city more attractive, and most examples of such practices remain subtle yet effective. While cities in liberal countries do tend to receive more scrutiny on the issue, cities under other forms of government tend to be more radical in their implementation. Yet in both cases it is either not discussed enough or wrongly portrayed and the homeless of our cities continue to be removed from our sight.


Maurits is a second year Ba. International Relations student at King’s College London. His particular interests of study and

writing include refugee resettlement, migration, human rights law and international relations theory.

Contact: mauritsbogaards@hotmail.com



Hidden Poverty: A New Landscape for the American Suburb




Teresa Caeiro and Alda Gonçalves, Homelessness – Press, Policies and Public Opinion in Portugal, European Journal of Homelessness _ Volume 9, No. 1, June 2015, Lisbon Portugal