Defensive Designs: What can designers do when designs turn hostile?

defensive designs

In defense of defensive designs

The year is 1973.

The city is New York.

Architect Oscar Newman makes a breakthrough discovery comparing two New York social housing projects & unraveling the idea that physical space design does, in fact, influence criminal behavior.

Newman argues that architectural and environmental design plays an essential part in increasing or reducing criminality. In his detailed study he found that people in high rise felt lesser control & lesser personal responsibility for an area occupied by so many people, in contrast to those in low rise buildings.

As a result, high rise buildings see a high rise in crimes.

Defensive designs

And thus began a whirlpool of widespread transformations in urban design where social control, crime prevention, & even public health came under the purview of community design.

In Newman’s book, Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space, defensible space is defined as a

“A residential environment whose physical characteristics—building layout and site plan—function to allow inhabitants themselves to become key agents in ensuring their security.”

Aka, defensible space is not just a physical space or layout.

It’s a socio-physical phenomenon.

He was a proponent of the opinion that an area is deemed safe by its inhabitants when they feel a sense of ownership & responsibility.

A criminal feels isolated when his turf is removed.

If an intruder can sense an involved & watchful community, he will feel reluctant in committing the crime. The idea is that crime and delinquency can be controlled and mitigated through environmental design.

While this was a scientific & well-intentioned study with a groundbreaking revelation, that did help in deter crime rates through socio-physical urban design, an unwanted repercussion of this movement in design was the rise of “hostile designs”.

Making cities safer ; but for whom? Thoughts on defensive architecture

The good thing about Newman’s design discovery was that now more & more architects were coming up with city & residential space designs that would invoke a sense of ownership & thus security.

The bad & the ugly thing about Newman’s design discovery was that this powerful concept probably landed in the hands of those who strictly viewed public spaces as something to be owned & used by a certain class of people.

The well-to-do, non-homeless, tax-paying class of people.

The fight against crime through environmental design went too far & was reborn as “hostile” design – unfriendly, non-welcoming, plain-old rude design elements that make public spaces inhospitable to all.

Defensive designs benches

The use of metal studs or bolts to break up smooth surfaces to discourage skateboarders is a classic example of this. In some countries, spikes have been installed in places where people (especially the homeless) tend to sleep rough.

Defensive home designs

An extreme example of this is the idea of coin-operated benches with retractable spikes.

Designs range in scale and type and are generally employed to prevent skateboarding, parkour, littering, loitering, and public urination, among other ‘anti-social’ behavior.

Qualified as inherently aggressive, defensive designs are now being regarded as distressing since these largely inhibit comfort in the outdoors & more often than not premeditated towards a certain section of the society

When defense turns hostile: The bane of defensive designs

From excessively cobbled pavements to spikes anywhere homeless people can sleep, hostile design elements, under the safe façade of “defensive designs”, are now dominating our public spaces. Such aggressive design measures, with the intention of curbing anti-social behavior & crime, are a hot topic for debate.

Proponents of “defensive design” claim their right to implement some level of “paternalistic libertarianism” for the greater good of the society.

In simple words, they believe that slight nudges across public space designs such as barricades, spikes, cobbled pavements & the likes, though lean towards undesirable or plain uncomfortable, tend to do more good than discomfort. These prevent loitering, sleeping on public benches, & seeking shelter at places which are not supposed to be treated thus.

On the other hand, those who dismiss hostility in design in public spaces are of the opinion that this design philosophy is highly militaristic in nature & imply the existence of a war against unanticipated use.

Qualified as inherently aggressive, defensive designs are now being regarded as distressing since these largely inhibit comfort in the outdoors & more often than not premeditated towards a certain section of the society – the homeless.

Defensive designs home

The design thinking that goes into creating such uncomfortable public spaces experience is to essentially deprive the majority of comfort, shelter, & security because of concerns around what may or may not happen.

A rather large & unaddressed problem at this point is who is in charge of taking the calls.

We generally have the police encouraging hostile & defensive designs for the sake of “preventing crime through environmental design”. The perspective here is one that is dominated by crime prevention, surveillance, control, & territorial enforcement. Something that is light years away from the perspective of urban designers, architects, city planners, & the likes – who think in terms of usability, convenience, comfort, aesthetics, & so on.

When design turns hostile, who is to be blamed?
Defensive Home Designs

A solution can be deemed successful or feasible if the benefits outweigh the adverse effects.

In case of defensive designs, sadly, this has not been the case.

While barricades on benches & spikes in the pathways, & weirdly inclined “leaning bars” might be hindering homeless people to seek shelter, what these are also simultaneously doing is create major issues for senior citizens, disabled, pregnant women, children, and those who are physically unfit.

Not to mention, these hostile design structures tend to deflect actual responsibilities from dealing with the core issues at hand here – social & economical issues that give rise to homelessness.

Anti homeless benches spikes

When you install spikes, barricades, cobbled pavements & so on, what you are actually emphasizing is that yes there is a problem, yes there are homeless people who need shelter & space, but no, this is NOT our responsibility.

With every installation of such hostile design elements across subways, parks, railway stations, pavements, public transportation, etc, the core problem is just being passed around from one system to another, where collectively shirking off responsibility is the only thing happening in the name of crime prevention.

Toyota & the system of 5 whys: Unschooling defensive designs

When Sakichi Toyoda formulated the legendary “5 whys” technique to get to the bottom of the problems across Toyota manufacturing units, he unwittingly opened the portals to effective solutioneering which is now made a part of Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, & Six Sigma.

This process is as simple as it sounds. To every problem statement you must ask why, 5 times. By asking the “why” again & again, you are peeling off layers from the root cause of the problem, only to reveal it through repeated questioning.

You can always take it to 6th or 7th level, but usually magic happens at why #5.

The key here is to avoid assumptions & logic traps & get to the bottom of the things asap.

The 5 Whys method was developed to work back to a root cause of a mechanical problem by a total of five removes.

Defensive architecture

Toyota’s famous example illustrates the simple nature but immense power of the technique:

Why did the robot stop? The circuit overloaded, making a fuse blow.

Why? There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

Why? The oil pump on the robot wasn’t circulating enough oil.

Why? The pump intake was clogged with metal shavings.

Why? There was no filter on the pump.

You must be wondering.

Why did we suddenly start talking about Toyota & mechanical problems when this article is about defensive design?

It’s because the same kind of thinking that helped Toyota troubleshoot mechanical problems & build cars that move the world, just might be the design thinking that hostile/defensive design needs to embrace.

Uncomfortable questions for the uncomfortable benches : Thoughts on defensive architecture

Now let’s apply the 5 whys method to the uncomfortable hostile benches & spiked pavements to analyze what might the root cause here:

Why do we need to make the benches uncomfortable?

– People are spending excessive amounts of time

Why are people spending so much time in public places?

– They have nowhere else to go

Why do they have nowhere else to go?

– Their homes are not safe (Domestic abuse) / They don’t have a home

Why are homeless shelters not accessible?

– Some of them are full capacity / Homeless People are not aware about the shelters + don’t know how to find them

Why are homeless shelters not able to reach out to homeless people?

– They might not own a phone

By asking 5 whys to the problem at hand, we have reached the core problem at hand. Reframing the problem statement now would look something like this –

“How might we create benches that might help homeless people find their way to a shelter that can accommodate them?”


What really happened here is that we took a problem that is plaguing society in general, i.e, homelessness, we narrowed it down to spaces/facilities most used by homeless people, we turned these spaces into platforms that might help curb homelessness rather than just shooing them off.

Looking from both the perspectives pertaining to defensive designs –

Supporters of defensive design – The reframed brief doesn’t go against their belief that homeless people do seek shelter in public spaces.

Opposers of defensive design – The new brief does take into account the socio-economic responsibility of homelessness & aims to solve it through empathy in design & not creation of more barricades & the likes.

Thanks to Toyota & the 5 Whys formula now we have a win-win-win solution.

Win for each of the three stakeholders involved here – those FOR defensive designs, those AGAINST defensive designs, & lastly the most important element here – the homeless crowd.

From barricades in the benches to barricades in our empathy: Defensive home designs

Understanding the implications of our designs is probably the biggest nirvana designers can achieve. At this juncture taking a strong moral & ethical stand is no longer a “good-to-have”.

Designs that tend to exclude certain demographics or are not inclusive of their needs don’t deserve to be a part of your work or a part of your client’s product/brand.

If as a designer, you are stuck in the ethical dilemma that is between choosing the right thing to do & choosing to listen to your clients’ requirements, try explaining to them the adverse repercussions of their thinking that doesn’t take into consideration empathy for end users.

Try providing alternatives. Remember at the end of the day, every designer is nothing but an advocate for the end user. Use this power to usher in designs that add value to people’s lives.

It’s easy to put up barricades, blockades, & walls.

That’s not the job of a designer.

The job of a designer is to break down those fences and allow actual human connections to nurture.

PS: In case you are interested in learning more about this, here’s a small video that will get you started.