Last week, the LA City Council voted to adopt Mayor Garcetti’s $8.76-billion budget proposal aimed to address the increasing homelessness problem in Los Angeles. The proposed measure would specifically improve housing and public services for those without shelter. During the last winter of 2015, the council already announced a $12.4 million budget to help provide more shelters for homeless people during the predicted El Niño season (which officially just ended according to weather-monitoring agencies around the globe). Together these proposals are just part of a broader $100 million plan to address homelessness in the city. Data indicates there has been a 12% increase in homelessness in both LA County and Los Angeles as a city since 2013. And there is an estimate of 70% among the homeless population that do not live within proximity of a shelter – about 18,000 in the city.
A mortared cobble bed in front a gym in Downtown Los Angeles, designed to deter homeless from sleeping in front of the entry. Photo by Yiran Wang.
Though government policies play an important role in battling socio-economic issues like homelessness, designers too can play a significant role in reshaping the city as a whole. Previously my colleague here at AHBE Lab briefly mentioned thoughtfully designed and built shelters or affordable apartment as improvements in LA’s Skid Row: “Perhaps there are small things can be done, such as rethinking the use of intermediate armrests on benches which are used to prevent individuals from sleeping at bus shelters, public plazas, and parks.”
A bench shelter by the Vancouver nonprofit group RainCity Housing.
Honestly speaking, the invisible nomadic population living along the streets and parks of Los Angeles often come up against an invisible wall, one fermented by increasing urban gentrification, and further facilitated by political acts based upon inequality defined by an infrastructure increasingly separating the classes of haves from the have-nots. Unfortunately, many of the physical manifestation of this wall – both visible and invisible – were designed by architects and landscape architects.
Have you ever heard of the Camden Bench? It is an angular concrete street bench first installed in London 2012, a design awarded as the “masterpiece of unpleasant design” aimed at deterring the presence of unwanted loitering of both the homeless population (who use benches as beds and resting areas) and skateboarders.
A page from “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” by Mike Davis
Many other similar “disciplinary architecture” or “hostile architecture” designs are dispersed across cities everywhere. Social historian Mike Davis noted in his book “City of Quartz” the appearance of barrel-shaped benches at bus stops in Downtown LA way back in 1990s. In 2014, another “masterpiece” pinched the public nerve: a series of small metal spikes outside a luxury building in London. Such “sadistic street environment” – as described by Mike Davis – only functions to repel people away, not just the homeless, resolving none of the problems for the city as a whole. Once public spaces shed a welcoming humane environment, it is not only the targeted “undesirables” who lose their dignity, but also the entirety of the city’s population itself.
American urbanist and organizational analyst William Whyte once commented about the relationship between cities and the population of “undesirables”:
“Places designed in distrust get what is anticipated, and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino. You will find winos elsewhere, but it is the empty places they prefer. It is in them that they look conspicuous – almost as if the design had been contrived to make them so.”
Perhaps it’s time we – architects, city planners, and landscape architects – move beyond designing cities operating under suspicion and distrust, and return to the more noble goal of shaping a city serving the many, instead of the few.