Power of One
If you walk anywhere in Seattle, you’ve probably noticed a lot of uneven, broken sidewalks, especially in suburban areas. Most people might think this is just a minor inconvenience or a small safety hazard. I, myself, once got a concussion from tripping on an uneven sidewalk as a teenager. But for some people, especially those who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters to get around, it can make certain streets literally untraversable.
Seattle’s Department of Transportation has been working hard to repair many of the publicly owned sidewalks around the city, but uneven sidewalks are only one of the many ways public environments can be inequitably designed for disabled people. For instance, let’s look at a topic that comes up a lot in discussions on public space: hostile architecture.
Hostile architecture is when infrastructure, an installation, or part of a building is designed in such a way as to be uncomfortable to lay on, sit on for an extended period, or just be around in general. If you’ve ever seen park benches with dividers in the middle — that’s an example of hostile architecture. Hostile architecture is most commonly used to deter people experiencing homelessness from being around certain areas, but it also often affects disabled people, as well.
Seattle is no stranger to hostile architecture. Back in early 2018, the appearance of brand-new bike racks under a Highway 99 overpass followed suspiciously closely behind a sweep of the homeless camp in the same area. This led to an article in The Guardian, exposing the real reason the bike racks’ new home: to deter the camp from setting back up.
But Seattle isn’t the only place this happens. Hostile architecture has been a concept of public design for decades, and practically every major city uses it in some form or another. Standing benches, spikes in alcoves, fenced off underpasses, all to stop homeless people from getting comfortable.
All of this has the side effect of forcing people to stay in unsheltered areas, and with summers getting hotter and hotter every year, this is a dangerous prospect. According to King County’s last Point in Time count, almost 30% of people experiencing homelessness in the county have disabling health conditions, including COPD, asthma and heart problems, which can all be adversely affected by hotter weather. Risk of skin cancer and heatstroke also sharply rise when people don’t have a form of shade or shelter, and people are hospitalized and even die every year from exposure.
As I mentioned before, hostile architecture doesn’t just affect people experiencing homelessness. Not everyone can stand for an hour waiting for a bus. Not everyone can fit in the amount of space sectioned off by armrests in the middle of a park bench. Not everyone looking for shelter under an overpass is trying to sleep there.
When we think about how we design our public spaces, we should think about equity not only for people experiencing homelessness existing in those spaces, but disabled people as well. After all, if not everyone can exist in a public space, can we even call it public in the first place?