An Urban Designer's View on Homelessness
Lack of housing and feeble rehabilitation policies breed homelessness. Comfortable public spaces do not. In other words, benches, tables, and gathering spaces are not the cause of homelessness, but the solution in keeping places safe.
A pervasive attitude often shared by city planners, developers, city officials and architects is that places for people to sit, gather and socialise attract homeless populations and the safety concerns associated with them. This argument is simple and therefore very easy to understand, but it is shortsighted.
In recent years, this has meant that many developers, architects and city planners have been actively discouraging the types of things in cities which promote social life and community: the benches, tables, and spaces for people to congregate. Rather than address the systemic problems which created the proliferation of homelessness in the first place, cities were often trying to turn their streets, parks and squares into agents for eradicating homeless populations. Places to sit and stay were 'verboten' with the use of spikes, barricades and other 'loitering' prevention devices. They were effectively making their cities less enjoyable for everyone in attempting to deal with the challenge of homelessness and issues of safety.
This attitude ignores the evidence, which reveals a very different picture; it exacerbates the problem that is trying to be avoided in the first place, issues around safety. To understand this, we looked at cities in the United States to see if there was a relationship between street furniture and homelessness. The evidence pointed to other culprits of homelessness and not to street furniture.
Portland, Oregon, faces the same problem of ubiquitous homelessness as any other American city. Old Town and the Pearl are two parts of the city where there are places for people to gather, sit, socialize and play. Old Town is known for its homeless population and the Pearl is not; in fact, in the Pearl the streets and squares are filled with people spilling out into them from bustling restaurants, bars, and pubs. This difference begs the question, does the presence of homeless people have anything to do with the provision of benches or gathering spaces?
The evidence points to a very different cause for the homelessness in Old Town - the fact that the majority of the city’s homeless shelters are in that part of the city. It turns out that homeless shelters attract homeless people.
Outdoor seating creates safe spaces
When city planners, developers and architects plan for, design and build enough outdoor places for people to gather, sit, and engage with each other, it triggers self-policing or natural surveillance forces within these places. By making our streets and squares more hospitable to public life, we are not inviting homeless people to loiter. Rather, we are inviting the common person to sit and stay, which greatly enhances the safety of a place.