I often look forward to the long drive between Los Angeles and the Bay Area as an opportunity to catch up with podcasts (in this case, a trek up to the wooded banana belt of Santa Cruz and then to Oakland, a trip in support of my wife’s cook book tour). Most people hate the long drive northward and back, but since I work at home and do not commute regularly, silence is my usual companion during the work week. The 400 miles journey up the interstate spine of California permits me the opportunity to sit back and enjoy several podcasts during the drive, ranging from the archetypal This American Life to the body hacking tips of Ben Greenfield Fitness, to the geeky-fun discussions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction explored by Imaginary Worlds. The quick twitch muscles attuned to email and message notifications turned off, much enjoyment is found just driving and listening.
It was during a recent episode of 99% Invisible, a 30 minute show dedicated to “the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world”, that my ears perked up. The episode, Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture, begins with the story of a popular convenience store in Oakland that began playing loud classical music to disperse loitering teenagers from their store front. It’s a tactic which has gone national, proving an effective aural deterrent, tapping into the neurobiological responses of younger minds to avoid the displeasurable sounds of music that isn’t current or cool.
Much of what we discuss here at AHBE Lab is aimed to connect, rather than disconnect citizens with their landscape and community. This flip-side proved fascinating and horrifying at once.
LISTEN: Host and producer Roman Mars spoke with Selena Savić, co-editor of the book Unpleasant Design.
In these cases of “classical repulsion“, the deterrent isn’t so unpleasant – arguably the positives outweigh the negatives at a mild cost to the community (Handel’s compositions may seem uncool to the discerning ears of teens, but few would call it truly unpleasant). The episode hosted by Roman Mars continues on with further examples of what is commonly referred to as unpleasant design – structural elements in public spaces used to deter certain behaviors, including but not limited to: sitting, sleeping, and congregation for extended periods. It’s a topic Yiran touched upon earlier this year: Designed in Distrust: Peering Over the Invisible Wall of Homelessness.
Increasingly developers, architects, and city planners are designing cities to become exclusive, rather than inclusive experiences, antithetical to the higher aspirations of any space. Or as Walt Disney once professed, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality”. These architectural and infrastructure features seem drawn from a dystopian vision where design is used as an effective barrier between populations and community. No, not science fiction, but well established reality.
Exclusionary design is worse than no design at all. Physical or invisibly overt, unpleasant design and hostile urban architecture are symptoms rather than a cure of a society’s shortcomings, an implementation which breaks the trust between a city and its citizens one bench at a time. Let’s hope Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas aim to treat the source of crime and homelessness rather than taking away the most basic human rights to sit, sleep, and gather…one bench at a time.