Camden Bench: Segregation by Design

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This is the Camden Bench, a public bench found on the streets of London. It has ridged top to prevent sleeping, undulating edges to prevent skating, paint-repellent coating to prevent graffiti, recesses at the base to prevent bag theft, no crevices to prevent drug dealing, no flat surfaces to prevent litter piling up… You can still sit on it, but that's about it.

Camden bench is an example hostile architecture - devices used to control our behaviour in cities. This list includes armrest dividers on public benches that target homeless by making sleeping impossible, pink lights that target teenagers by highlighting skin blemishes and discouraging loitering and Pig's Ears - metal flanges on low walls that target skateboarders making grinding impossible. 

Over the years a massive arsenal of such devices has accumulated. Officially installed to uphold public order they have often been used to protect business interests. To uncover this, we have to take a look at the history of profit making through segregation and the role that design played in it.

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In 1930s redlining maps were used to classify urban areas based on their desirability to investors. Neighbourhoods were classified by income, race and age of residents. This resulted in poor areas being neglected by banks and businesses accelerating further decay and segregation of these neighbourhoods.

From the design of maps to design of buildings. 2009 changes to zoning code in New York City promised developers subsidies for adding affordable units. Add a few cheaper flats and you could build higher buildings with more area making more profit. Developers were quick to react but fearing that living together with poor people might deter some market-rate clients, they introduced poor doors - a separate entrance for affordable unit residents only. Now developers could build more flats and prime-paying customers were not inconvenienced by having to brush shoulders with lower classes.

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It was another New Yorker, who took the idea of segregation by design to the whole next level. Robert Moses was a New York City planning officer who shaped much of the city in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. To protect wealthy Long Beach residents from the poor visiting the famous public beaches, Moses designed a series of low overpasses over Long Beach Parkway. The bridges were too low for the buses to pass under, cutting off the whole area from the poor who relied on public transport to travel.

The only goal of these techniques is profit. Passing someone surviving on a few dollars a day on your way to buying a $10 frappuccino might make you think twice before ordering it. Homeless people reduce real estate value and make areas less appealing to consumers. It's bad for business, so businesses use civic engineering to achieve social engineering and push poor people away. Mike Davis calls it the "class war at the level of built environment" and the weapon of choice today is hostile architecture.

Anti-homeless spikes have been particularly popular. But they are too in-your-face. They get the homeless out but bring enraged masses in. One luxury block of flat in London was forced to dismantle anti-homeless spikes only 6 days after installing them when a petition was signed by over 130'000 people. In another part of town, a grocery store was forced to remove anti-homeless spikes after protesters covered them in wet concrete. 

Such and similar acts of civic defiance did not go unnoticed by businesses paying for hostile architecture. Let's look at things from their perspective. Homeless people congregating around your shop reduce your sales. You invest in fabrication, planning permission and installation of anti-homeless spikes. The public revolts, the media broadcasts, your last quarter’s PR strategy goes down the drain and you are left with having to dismount your spikes which are now smudged in concrete. Talk about bad return on investment…

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To overcome this problem of civic consciousness, businesses once again turned to designers. The brief was simple: create a device that does the same as homeless spikes but in less obvious manner. Same exclusionist message, same profit-driven intention, a friendlier face. The result of this exercise - the Camden Bench. The outdated fortress aesthetics of the anti-homeless spikes were replaced by contemporary faceted look but the aim to control who gets to use the public space remained.

And it worked. In 2012 journalist Tom Foot conducted a series of interview with people using the Camden Bench. "People sitting on the bench eating lunch said they liked it. They felt it was not like putting spikes outside housing blocks and supermarkets, which they objected to."

The only important difference between the anti- homeless spikes and Camden bench is how they look. The function of both is the same: drive certain unwanted people away. In the case of Camden Bench aesthetics are used to normalise the problem, desensitise brutality and make it more palatable to avoid public outcry. The fact that the general public is okay with one but not the other shows that we failed to look past the makeup into the draconian aims of exclusion.

Thinking about this, I kind of wish we’d have stuck with the spikes: at least they are honest about their intentions.

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Hostile architecture does not fight homelessness. It has one goal: hide the weak, the poor and the old from the fit, the rich and the young. Not being able to sleep on the bench does not make you less poor, it simply makes you poor in a different part of town. Author Mike Davis talks about this process in his book Planet of Slums. He describes the urban poor as a permanently redundant mass that cannot be included in the new corporate societies. Pushed to liminal zones and constantly regurgitated towards the margins. And this is the main problem that hostile architecture creates: it sterilises our public spaces. It says you are a citizen only if you can afford to consume.

When Frederick Law Olmstead was tasked with designing one of the greatest public spaces in the world - New York Central Park - he envisioned it as the “social safety valve”. A place where people from all walks of life and all social classes would have to come together and intermingle. And key urban theorists seem to agree. The Camden Bench and other hostile architecture fight against this idea. Driving away the poor, the young and the elderly leaves our public spaces inhabited by the healthy and wealthy consumers walking among the likes. A real life Facebook filter bubble.
 

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