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Building Cities on Inequality: On India’s Hostile Architecture Problem

By Sakshi Sadashiv Kadam

Image: Dragonite / Flickr

Some two years back, Parel Railway Station in Mumbai installed a new set of benches. These shiny new silver benches were elevated at one part so that if you tried to lie down on them it would be very uncomfortable. Why is that, I wondered. Because, surely, benches are for people to take a rest on, so shouldn’t you be able to do just that?

Infrastructure, an installation or a segment of a building is constructed in such a way as to be awkward to lay on or sit on for a lengthy period, or just be around in general, is called hostile architecture. Also known as defensive architecture, hostile design, unpleasant design, exclusionary design, and defensive urban design, the term hostile architecture is often associated with "anti-homeless spikes". Like the half elevated benches in Parel station. Or those park benches with dividers or “armrests” in the middle, splitting what should be one bench into three chairs. Or studs embedded in flat surfaces to make sleeping on them uncomfortable and impractical. Other measures include sloped window stills to avoid people sitting, water sprinklers that "intermittently come on but aren't really watering anything", and cold-water-only taps in public toilets (with running-time limits so that they need to be activated repeatedly, spikes in alcoves or fencing off underpasses.

This form of architecture is most commonly found in densely populated cities and has been a design strategy of public design for decades. Practically every metropolitan city uses it in some form or another. It’s done to dissuade homeless people from finding some sort of shelter, comfortable or not, pressurizing them to stay in unsheltered areas. But with each new bench or every fenced off area, our streets become less safe and less habitable whilst people become more desperate. So why is hostile architecture a prominent feature of our cities, and what is it really achieving?

Hostile architecture thrives to criminalize the homeless and facilitates shifting the problem of homelessness onto the homeless themselves – it averts our gaze from the real problem. Cities have become better at hiding poverty than dealing with the root causes of it, anti-homeless architecture merely creates an illusionary solution to homelessness. Out of sight, out of mind, without implementing tangible solutions like policies to reduce inaccessibility to the housing market, reducing poverty and closing the large class disparity in income.

The Guise of Public Safety

The Census of India 2011 defines a 'houseless household' as, 'households who do not live in buildings or census houses but live in the open on roadside, pavements, inhume pipes, under flyovers and staircases, or in the open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms, etc. According to the Census of 2011, India has more than 1.7 million homeless residents, of which 938,384 are located in urban areas.

Anti-homelessness laws are not a new occurrence; they can be traced back to old English vagrancy laws. Individuals enduring homelessness are criminalized in distinct ways, from creating anti-homelessness policies, strengthening surveillance by police, worsening the likelihood of being imprisoned, and releasing people from custody into homelessness. There is a change in public policies that restrains the daily lives of homeless people, including subsistence strategies such as panhandling, squeegeeing, and sleeping in public spaces. Often, the argument behind these policies contributes to the marginalization and stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness under the pretence of public safety. These laws claim to protect the public from the alleged “dangers” that the homeless population bring on society.

Don Mitchell has underlined the links between the criminalization of homelessness and the debates around the privatization of public spaces in cities. Mitchell argues that the justification of anti-homeless laws is to deprive the homeless of their right to public spaces in order to privatize these spaces as a way of capitalizing on the economy. While this may be good for businesses, people experiencing homelessness who use public spaces for their survival are usually not provided with any sorts of appropriate alternatives. Mitchell calls this the “annihilation of space by law”.

Anti-homeless architecture and policies work towards the “annihilation” of public spaces that many within the homeless population pin their hopes on for their very own existence. Many cities have used the legal system against homeless people as a way of polishing up their streets from the “undesired” by taking away their rights to public spaces in which they often have no other choice but to live in. To gain people’s favour, politicians usually fabricate a moral panic and/or some type of fictional discussion denigrating the homeless population.

The Inaccessibility Problem

There are two aspects to this issue. One is the supply of housing. Relatively little new construction is being built. And what gets built is very expensive, far beyond the budgets of most households. New constructions in Mumbai alone are atrociously high-priced. While the city has immense poverty, with people living in the smallest of slums here, it is also home to 25,000 millionaires owning Bungalows. Moreover, building affordable housing for the homeless is frequently fought ferociously by current residents in the suggested neighbourhoods. Many blame existing homeowners for trying to block these developments, but many of these homeowners have invested large sums of their assets in extremely expensive Mumbai housing and are generally fighting to upkeep their assets values from coming down. What tends to get forgotten is that, what are assets for them, are homes to someone else.

With economic promises of urbanization, there is an influx of people to urban cities in India. As India’s GDP boomed, however, so did its propositions of income inequality: with the top 10% of the population controlling 55% of its wealth, India is the second most economically-unequal country in the world. The consequences of this class disparity are especially prominent in urban centres like Delhi and Mumbai. Despite a 28% decline in homelessness in rural India, there’s been a 20% increase in cities.

In India, there is a visible distaste towards homeless people. People tend to think of them as nuisances. Mumbai has a huge influx of migrant population, some of which tend to be homeless. The right-wing political rhetoric of migrants “polluting” the city reiterates this through the distaste and utter disregard people tend to have towards the homeless. Most public washrooms in India take ₹5 to ₹10 charges to use the washroom. Not all homeless people can afford that, resulting in homeless people being left to urinate and defecate in the street, waterways and railway tracks. Research shows that homeless individuals are much more likely to be fined than those who are housed, and even incarcerated for causing a nuisance, public intoxication, loitering, or urinating in public.

Hostile architecture and increasing inaccessibility to public provisions such as toilets isn’t just an issue for homelessness, but for disabled people, women, and the working poor. And of course, all of these groups can overlap. In her renowned book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez points out that “homelessness has historically been seen as a male phenomenon”, but this isn’t necessarily the case. “Homelessness is usually measured by counting those who use homeless services, but this approach only works if men and women are equally likely to use their services, and they aren’t. Women made homeless as a result of domestic violence are often likely to seek refuge in domestic-violence shelters rather than homeless shelters”, she states. This means in some countries such as the UK, those women won’t be counted as homeless.

Not only this but many homeless shelters are “set up with men in mind” and pose risks to women in danger of sexual exploitation. Supposedly gender-neutral spaces then become arenas for increased violence against women, or just spaces where women are excluded from access. Another statistic from the book is that in the UK, homeless shelters can request free condoms from the NHS, but not free menstrual products. Most homeless women in India use old cloth for their periods, with no way to wash them properly, risking their health tremendously. Add to that the lack of street lighting, access to safe female toilets, and overcrowded transport systems, and the gendered impact of homelessness becomes clear.

Pandemic Impacts

The pandemic also had huge impacts on the lives of homeless people and those on the borderline too. A study conducted by Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) reveals that people living in homelessness in Delhi experienced violations of their human rights during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, in April and May 2021. In the absence of adequate state support, homeless persons continue to suffer from severe food insecurity, loss of livelihood, adverse health impacts, and other forms of deprivation and destitution. About 28% of the respondents living on the streets reported facing police harassment during the lockdown. Self-isolation and home quarantine were obligatory conditions to curb the spread of the virus. However, the ‘stay at home’ instructions clearly didn’t consider the safety of homeless people. To provide shelters for the homeless, the most critical scheme launched by the government of India is Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM).

However, the trajectory for providing shelter to every homeless in the country depicts a gloomy picture. According to the 2011 census, there are 9.25 lakh people who are homeless in urban spaces. The shelters created for the homeless under DAY-NULM are only 1.09 lakhs. Thus, around 8.15 lakhs of urban homeless people do not have access to the schemes. We have to keep in mind that the 2011 Census is not accurate almost 11 years later, and the numbers indicated in the Census are marginally undercounted. The DAY-NULM data also shows that the funds provided for the development and construction of shelters remain inadequately utilized. Higher allocation of resources under the DAY-NULM will help create more shelters. However, it is equally important to adequately utilize the funds already devoted to creating infrastructure under this scheme. Also, day and night and permanent shelters should be built in accordance with the norms laid out by the Supreme Court- one shelter with space for 100 persons.

It’s worth remembering that hostile architecture doesn’t just affect people experiencing homelessness, and we should all want our public spaces to be more accommodating. 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. Making the built environment hostile to people, such as people without stable housing, also has the effect of making it hostile to elderly people, people with disabilities, tired workers, pregnant women, people caring for young children, or just a tired person.

Hostile architecture doesn’t solve homelessness —in fact, it’s far from it. Through this rhetoric, homeless people are not treated as human beings, but as public nuisances, that must be removed from public spaces. When we think about how we design our public spaces, we should think about equity. After all, if not everyone can exist in a public space, can we even call it public in the first place?


About the author

Sakshi Sadashiv Kadam is a student, learner and unlearner. Sakshi has worked as a Research Associate for BehanBox, a gender journalism digital platform. She previously worked at Times of India, primarily covering School Principals' interviews and focusing on pandemic teaching.


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  9. Mitchell, Don, 1997. “The Annihilation of Space By Law: the Roots and Implications of Anti-Homeless Laws”


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