Perth councils deploying ‘hostile architecture’ to make life even tougher for homeless people

Perth councils deploying ‘hostile architecture’ to make life even tougher for homeless people
  • PublishedMarch 29, 2024

Can the humble park bench be considered hostile? Seems like a silly question.

But for some of the most vulnerable people, the design of public furniture can mean the difference between them feeling safe or not.

Experts say the shapes and designs of seating in the built environment are becoming increasingly hostile and homeless services say it’s one way vulnerable people are being pushed out of cities.

It could be a curve in its design, sharpened edges, or arm rests placed in the middle of the seat.

Bright yellow public seating, including individual chairs and a long curved bench.
The design of this public seating on Hay Street in Perth makes it difficult for vulnerable people to lie down.(ABC News: Grace Burmas)

They are details that make it uncomfortable or impossible to sit for a long time or lie down.

It’s commonly referred to as hostile architecture.

Len’s struggle

For Len James, these design features made the daily battle of finding somewhere to sleep even harder.

He became homeless on the streets of Perth at 58, after a back injury put him out of work.

Older white male wearing black polo shirt, cream shorts and glasses sits on a public bench in Perth city.
Len James became homeless on the streets of Perth at 58 and says finding a place to sleep was a nightly struggle.(ABC News: Grace Burmas)

“In a subtle way they let me know that they didn’t want me there, so I had to look for somewhere else,” Mr James said.

“That’s what it’s like when you’re on the streets, you’re forever looking for somewhere safe where you can sleep at night.”

Mr James is now in social housing but he said feeling rejected by his city sits vividly in his memory.

“When your world becomes very small, things are exaggerated, so these things weigh heavily on you,” he said.

Hostile architecture isn’t limited to the design of benches.

A composite of two images, with one showing a round flat border around a tree and a man sitting on it, the other is sharp.
This image shows how the area surrounding trees outside Perth Train Station has been modified to prevent people sitting. The image on the right is from 2021, while the one on the left is from this week.(ABC News: Grace Burmas/Google Maps)

High-pitched ringing in a stairwell, music playing on loop or sprinklers coming on in parks are all ways people can be told to move along.

Creating barriers

Regional Urban Planning Lecturer at Curtin University, Shane Grieve, said these design features are intentional.

“[It’s] all the little design elements that we put into what could be commonplace architecture that actually makes it difficult for people to be there for much longer than they should,” he said.

“The ‘should’ is determined by somebody else.”

Dr Greive said some local governments implement measures to prevent anti-social behaviour but, in doing so, it creates another barrier for people sleeping rough.

“We’re trying to design out crime, and we’re making places more defensible,” he said.

“That works when you’ve got criminals or people with evil intent or bad intent.

“It’s a different matter when you’re using those design capacities or control features to really oppress people who are already very vulnerable and doing it tough.”

Fighting for change

Shelter WA CEO Kath Snell said hostile architecture was a major issue for people sleeping rough, and was not a long-term solution to homelessness.

As an interim measure, the service works with some local governments to advocate for public spaces to be more accessible.

A homeless person sleeping on a park bench in a sleeping bag.
Local governments are deploying hostile architecture to avoid scenes like this.(AAP Image: Dave Hunt)

“What we’re trying to do is really encourage people not to just move the problem, that’s not solving anything,” Ms Snell said.

“This is what your hostile architecture is doing.

“What we’re saying to local governments is we’ve all got a part to play in this. Let’s not make life even harder for people who are experiencing rough sleeping.”

What’s the solution?

Ms Snell said a move away from hostile architecture would involve benches designed to be slept on and not turning sprinklers on where councils know people are sleeping at night.

“Let’s look at ways of improving that and changing it and seeing the differences that makes in your community as a whole,” she said.

A woman wearing a pink dress and pink jacket sits on a park bench with green trees behind her.
Kath Snell says local governments need to know that just moving the problem on is not a solution.( ABC News: Keane Bourke )

Mr James said having access to welcoming infrastructure in his city would have made a “world of difference”.

“It would be appreciated so much by people that are homeless that someone cares, that someone has put a bit of thought into it to try and make life a bit easier for them,” he said.

“Ultimately homeless people need a roof over their heads.

“It’s no good sort of giving people move on notices, and just pushing the problem from one place to another.

“It’s a crisis and it needs to be addressed.”


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