The purpose of a public bench should be to provide convenient, comfortable seating for everyone. However, they can support an additional agenda: to define how long and in what position they can be used, and therefore, by whom they can used. Benches strive to be comfortable, but not so comfortable that people stay there for long periods of time. Design elements such as a narrow seating or midpoint arm rests prevent behaviors such as lounging and sleeping.
The message to homeless people is simple and clear: this space is not for you.
For this reason, benches are the most frequently cited example of adversarial design (also known as defensive, exclusionary, hostile, negative design, etc.). These are design tactics used to discourage unwanted behaviors. In public spaces this typically means sleeping and loitering, particularly by the homeless or groups perceived to be threatening.
I am far from the first person to point out that a park bench is a problematic object. But it is a logical place to begin a conversation on exclusion in public space because it straightforwardly shows how an extra piece of metal can function as an means of social control. There are a lot of interesting design projects that have explored inclusive bench design for the homeless, ranging from messaging on the bench, to objects inserted between armrests, to fully convertible shelters. This is where the public bench takes on a new meaning to me: we have a range of solutions from just “not putting in armrests” to those more speculative designs, but these alternatives do not result in more inclusive benches.
Developers and city officials can easily justify measures to exclude the homeless from visible public spaces for public safety. If people don’t feel safe, they are unlikely to spend time there, supporting business development and real estate value. Aside from the inequity of a public good that is not truly for the public, the obvious flaw with design for homeless exclusion is that shifting where they sleep, does not end homelessness. Making homeless people less visible makes it harder to connect them to shelters and service providers, forces them to seek out more vulnerable dwellings, and also creates a false impression that rates of homelessness are going down.1 Design for social control may solve for some people’s perception of safety, but fails to actually make us safer.