Photograph by Cara Chellew

A major urban design trend is making Toronto less liveable

How defensive design is pushing the most vulnerable out of public spaces in the GTA

Let’s talk about the GTA’s park benches. Sat on one lately? They used to be inviting places to eat your lunch, change your baby or lie down to read a book. Now they’re frequently divided down the middle by a third armrest or intentionally designed to be uncomfortable. What gives?

This is an example of defensive design, also known as “hostile architecture” or “unpleasant design.” This popular urban design practice discourages specific uses of public spaces, and is touted as a strategy to prevent crime, vandalism and wear-and-tear on outdoor amenities. Those uncomfortable benches, for example, prevent users from lying down, which means people experiencing homelessness can’t use them as places to sleep at night. And while elements like these used to be added to public spaces retroactively—the ’90s saw anti-skateboard measures being installed in neighbourhoods like Toronto’s Financial District to combat the rise of urban skating—now even new parks are studded with these unfriendly design choices.

picture of fountain with dog sculpture

“We’re increasingly fortifying our public spaces,” says Cara Chellew, a public-space advocate who has been cataloguing the rise of defensive design in Toronto and around the world on her site, #defensiveTO. “We’re making them more unwelcoming—not just for targeted populations, but for everyone,” she says. (Photograph by Cara Chellew)

Benches aren’t the only example of defensive design; in public spaces. Next time you take a walk around your neighbourhood, see if you can spot metal bars on ledges; these keep people from sitting or skateboarding on them. And watch for spikes set over subway grates; these prevent people from sleeping on them and taking advantage of the heat that rises up during frigid winter nights. And physical barriers are just the start: If you notice classical music blasting onto the sidewalk at all hours, that’s meant to discourage young people from gathering or people experiencing homelessness from sleeping nearby.

Defensive design can even work through omission: The absence of certain amenities, like seating or public washrooms, can be intentional design choices made to prevent people from lingering. Chellew coined the term ghost amenities to describe these conspicuous absences. “This lack of amenities is done to cut costs, reduce maintenance and reduce vandalism and loitering, but it also disproportionately affects a lot of people who are vulnerable,” she explains. “The lack of benches, the lack of places that offer up shade and shelter, the lack of public washrooms—all these things should be available in public spaces to make them more comfortable and human-centred.”

These concepts aren’t new. Defensive design has been around for decades (some cite Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s 19th-century reconstruction of Paris as a very early example), but it has faced significant pushback in the last few years. In Toronto alone, there have been outcries about grates installed to prevent people from sleeping on vents, noise-emitting machines meant to keep people from loitering and strategically placed planters that keep people from sitting or standing on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, as recent reports by the CBC and the Toronto Star have drawn attention to the ways defensive design is being deployed in the GTA, Chellew has been busy recruiting volunteers to help her create an interactive map chronicling its presence in Toronto and the suburbs(Photograph by Tai Huynh)

So why the sudden attention paid to defensive design? It’s because Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis, and shelters and respite spots—temporary emergency shelters that provide people with the basics, like a mat to sleep on, food and access to a bathroom for 24 hours—are at or close to capacity. “With the rising housing costs and rental costs in the City of Toronto, there are more and more people who may end up out on the street, very sadly,” says Patricia Elkerton, community engagement leader at West Neighbourhood House, a United Way-supported agency. Despite the introduction of three new respite sites this past winter, Elkerton doesn’t believe Toronto’s shelter system will be able to handle a growing population of people experiencing homelessness. “I think it will be more of an issue where people are just trying to find somewhere safe, and it will be harder and harder to find anything.”

People choose to sleep in parks or public squares for many reasons, says Elkerton. They may feel safer out in the open, where they can gather with people they know. They may want to stay close to busy thoroughfares, where they’ll be visible to people walking by, reducing the likeliness that they will become victims of violence. When these open-air spaces are designed to repel people, especially at night, many people experiencing homelessness get pushed out. Elkerton particularly worries about that those who resort to sleeping in stairwells or other dark spots, which she thinks can make them particularly vulnerable to violence.

Defensive design also affects people who aren’t its intended targets. Chellew recounts a story a recovering cancer patient told her: She found it difficult to walk in her neighbourhood because there were no places to sit and rest. It can also exclude vulnerable members of our community, such as youth and people living rough, from opportunities to interact with the broader community. The result, says Elkerton, is that the people she works with—and the issues they face—fade into the background. (Photograph by Cara Chellew)

“For the marginalized community, especially those who are sleeping rough, [there’s a sense] that they shouldn’t be seen or heard; that they don’t have a place in the community. And, if there is a place, it’s hidden away in a warehouse-style shelter,” says Elkerton. “Instead of trying to find solutions that are manageable and welcoming, [the design of these parks] is doing the complete opposite. They’re making people sleeping rough feel like they’re non-entities—that they don’t matter.”

So what can you do to stop defensive design from creeping into your neighbourhood? Elkerton suggests using your voice when you see a revitalization project, or a new park, going up in your area. Attend community consultations, or talk to your public officials, and let them know they need to make these spaces work for everyone in the neighbourhood. “Who you see every day as you go through your city—that informs who is a part of your city,” Chellew adds. “We need to start seeing people as our neighbours, as part of our city. Even if some people might make you feel uncomfortable, everyone deserves the right to benefit from public space.”

Defensive design’s presence forces us to answer an important question: Who do we consider to be part of our community, and who are we excluding? “The homeless individual sleeping rough in my neighbourhood, who I see regularly, he’s my neighbour,” says Chellew. “He lives in that neighbourhood too, you know?”

Make a difference now:
• Share this story with your friends and family!
• Sign up for The Good News Letter to get more stories like this in your inbox every Saturday.