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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #2: 106 E 6th Street | Littlefield Building

KAITLIN: Welcome to stop number two. Here at the Littlefield building, you can once again take a look at the window sills. There aren’t knobs here, but the stanchions you see still prevent people from sitting. 


ASHLEY: That’s definitely a less aggressive design, even though it still accomplishes the same thing.


KAITLIN: Design choices change with the times. And Austin has seen its share throughout the years. For a perspective on how Austin’s defensible design practices have shifted over time, we reached out to an expert.


We're talking to Donna Carter, owner of Carter Design Associates here in town. Thank you so much for being here, Donna.


DONNA CARTER: Thank you for having me.


ASHLEY: When we first talked to Donna to be a part of this event, she let us know that the topic of hostile design wasn't anything new. And maybe because this issue is still so new to us, we were really interested in the fact that Donna had some history with this subject. So tell us, what are some of the conversations you were having about defensible design as Austin was being developed during the 80s and 90s?


DONNA CARTER: I mean, this goes back to the "beautification of Congress Avenue." And that in and of itself was a community engagement discussion. Some would call it an argument, some would call it a fight, some would call it Thanksgiving dinner with family, but part of it was to stimulate economic development. So when we finally get, and at that point, I think it was called the Rusk Building, when that development occurred, everyone was excited, we were going to have major new development. But then, oh, people are sitting in the window sills, and the first incarnation of defense of those windows sills were actually newel posts and they received the moniker of heinie knobs. And we had editorials in the paper about the heinie knobs on the building. They had a castle look. Designers now would look at what's in place and say, "Oh, this is an improvement. This could literally just be described as architectural ornamentation." Your first inclination is not that it's keeping someone out.


KAITLIN: That leads me perfectly into my next question, which is how have things changed from then to now, what are some of the factors that influenced those practices to us now having this discussion?


DONNA CARTER: To me, it is a very fine line. And whether one defines that as truly hostile or all right, we do want to discourage this behavior and we want to do it in a way that does not look like we're living in fortresses. We want to do it in a beautiful way. Are there ways of doing it that are at least attractive? And when we have that conversation with ourselves, are we being honest about it? Again, the history lesson, going back to the '70s and the '80s, the urban design theme of the day were pocket parks. The idea there being you had more people using that space, more eyes, more people with their cups of coffee, with their lunch, so, in fact, it wasn't invasion and it drove the other activities out.


DONNA CARTER: And I would submit that on most conversations that would be seen as a good thing. It cleaned up an area. It provided places for art. It provided for places to actually eat lunch when they bought their hot dog from the vendor down the street/ it actually enlivened and activated that space. So, for me, these are accommodations. As a designer, you want to do them, they can be pleasant to look at, they can be technologically innovative, they can be artistic, they can be fun, they can be whimsical. And what I personally don't want them to be is as an invading army.


ASHLEY: To that end, when you sit down to design something, what are some other ways you strive to design with inclusivity in mind?


DONNA CARTER: I actually do go back to those '70s and '80s principles of, how do you define space and how can you do it in the softest way possible to define that space and realize that you are always dealing with two kinds of space? You're dealing with positive space and you're dealing with negative space, and that design of the negative space is just as important.


KAITLIN: Well, Donna, that's all we had for you. Thank you so much for joining us to have this conversation. Folks can find Donna at

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