Returning after a two-day business trip, Seattle resident Jeff Few noticed something odd on a stretch of pavement underneath Highway 99. When he had left his Belltown condo there had been a homeless encampment. Now the tents and the men, women and children seeking shelter there were gone, with 18 new bike racks installed in their place.
“The new racks were clearly there to deter street camping,” says Few. “There was no transportation need for that many bike racks under a viaduct that is going to be torn down in a year.”
His suspicions were confirmed after he filed a public disclosure request for emails from Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) employees about the installation. The correspondence shows the transport department coordinated with police to have the racks ready to install as soon as the people were removed, in order to prevent their return.
In one email, an SDOT civil engineer asks the bike parking manager if there are bike racks available to install, and writes: “This is part of the homelessness emergency response effort. The area is being cleaned on Monday and ideally, we’d be able to install behind the clean team.”
In another, an SDOT field coordinator writes that the encampment sweep is almost complete and if the rack installation crew is on its way he will “have [the Seattle Police Department] make sure it does not get re-camped”.
SDOT did not respond to requests for comment.
Few thinks it’s a waste of money and energy to displace people seeking shelter one of rainy Seattle’s rare dry spots. “My experience with the folks that were camped out there was that they were not a nuisance to the community,” he says. “People have this impression of who is living with housing insecurity. But there were a lot of women and children taking shelter under the viaduct, people with pets – precisely the kinds of people who couldn’t depend on shelter available in the city.”
“These aren’t bike racks, they are bike-washed ‘anti-homeless spikes’,” wrote Tom Fucoloro on Seattle Bike Blog. “As someone who has been a big advocate of expanding the city’s bike parking, it is disturbing to see hard-won bike racks used in such a way.”
Selena Savić, co-editor of the book Unpleasant Design, says Seattle’s use of bike racks to deter a homeless camp is a clear example of hostile, or defensive, architecture.
“There is always an appearance of a service or beauty, which is its secondary function,” she explains. “The primary function is to deter people, or behaviours, or pigeons. Rich, large cities are definitely more prone to using unpleasant design because it’s hard to manage a lot of people. Unpleasant design removes the need for human surveillance and intervention. I haven’t heard of bike racks before, but the Seattle example fits perfectly.”
Classic examples of hostile architecture include putting arm rests in the middle of public benches to prevent people from laying down, installing “homeless spikes” on the tops of walls to keep people from sleeping there and metal bars on ledges to stop skateboarding.
In Hague’s city hall, public bathrooms use blue lights that make it harder to see veins in an effort to stop intravenous drug use. To discourage public urination, the walls of some Cologne rail stations have been covered with hydrophobic paint that makes a pee stream bounce back on the offender.
Hostile architecture has evolved into subtler forms as more blunt examples garner blowback. In 2014, a Tesco supermarket in central London agreed to remove anti-homeless spikes outside its store after a wave of protest. Oddly shaped benches, decorative rocks and bike racks all do a better job of hiding their primary functions.
Seattle also has plenty of examples of hostile architecture beyond the recent bike rack installation. It uses mid-bench arm rests to prevent laying down. There is wide use of “leaning benches” at bus stops – where the angled rests allow people to lean back, but there is no seat. A Seattle Twitter user recently spotted bus shelter benches that protrude both sides of the narrow shelter so a person laying down would be exposed to the weather.
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, describes the anti-homeless bike racks as “mean-spirited and misguided”. “It essentially amounts to treating the disastrous reality of mass homelessness and poverty as a technical problem, rather than a problem of human beings not having their needs met,” she says.
The latest one-night count put the homeless population Seattle’s metropolitan area at 11,643 people – with 5,485 of those without shelter. A recent policy shift towards “enhanced shelters” with storage, onsite case managers and other services has resulted in a cut of 300 beds at the city’s more traditional emergency overnight shelters. Seattle has a policy of removing unauthorised homeless camps but advocates argue that without a place for campers to go, the policy only shuffles encampments around the city while making life all the more miserable for people living on the street.
“It’s easy to be outraged about hostile architecture but the question is, how do these things happen?” says Eisinger. “As far as I’m concerned this is a textbook opportunity for Seattle’s new mayor not only to say that was an unacceptable decision, but that the chain of command that allowed various people to make and approve this use of public resources is going to change.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan did not go as far as that. “Bike racks should be deployed to support and encourage biking – not used as impediments,” she said in a statement emailed to the Guardian. “To help those living outside, our city must do more to provide short-term and permanent housing for thousands of people without access to humane and safe shelter. Our top priority must be ensuring public safety and protecting public health to address our homelessness crisis.”
Today the bike racks still stand … and the homeless camp has not returned.