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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #1: 600 Congress | Starbucks


ASHLEY: Hello! And welcome to Current Forward’s Austin Design Week Walking Tour: Hostile Design in the Built Environment. I’m Ashley.


KAITLIN: And I’m Kaitlin. We’re partners at Current Forward, a brand strategy and research consultancy here in Austin. 


ASHLEY: Together with some friends of ours, we’re going to explore the world of hostile design right here in downtown. 


So, let’s get things started by talking about what hostile design is. I wasn’t familiar with it until you started talking about it, Kaitlin.

KAITLIN: Yeah, so, hostile design is an urban design strategy that uses the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behavior as a means to maintain order, prevent crime and ensure public safety. It’s sometimes referred to as anti-homeless design or design against humanity. And on the flip side of those terms, it’s also known as defensive design, defensible design or sometimes unpleasant design. 


To really understand what these definitions mean, take a look at the windows of this first stop on our tour. Here at 600 Congress, you can grab a cup of coffee inside at the Starbucks, but you can’t sit down on the building’s exterior window sills to enjoy it. Those sills are filled with large metal knobs to prevent you from doing just that. That’s an example of hostile design in action. Knobs incorporated into the design to stop people from interacting with that space. It prevents paying customers from sitting down. And it prevents … say … Austin’s unhoused population from sitting or lying down in that area.


ASHLEY: You know, since you turned me onto this subject, I’ve learned that many of the hostile design examples that are typically discussed focus overwhelmingly on the unhoused population. And when I think about architecture being a reflection of society, that makes a lot of sense to me. Commercial buildings are using design solutions to keep unhoused people from being seen. It’s not necessarily a tactic to keep people safer, but it’s definitely a tactic to make consumers feel more comfortable. As a capitalistic society, businesses don’t want anything to hinder their ability to attract customers. And none of these design tactics are aimed at finding solutions to issues that cause homelessness, but rather they’re aimed at pushing the visibility of the issues elsewhere … away from a prosperous commercial downtown area. 


KAITLIN: Exactly. But there are many different lenses through which we can discuss hostile design choices. And while most of the physical examples on the tour target the unhoused population, we’ll hear from architecture and urban planning experts who will help us explore many, many facets of this conversation. From the ways the city has changed throughout the years to how Austin is actively working to make more inclusive design decisions.


ASHLEY: We’ll also dig into how environmental design can be used to prevent crime and make women feel more secure in public and how cities of the future can use technology to be more inclusive. So, let’s do it! Head across the street to the next stop on the tour and hit play to keep listening and learning.

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