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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #5: 201 E. 2nd Street | Parking Garage

ASHLEY: Check out stop number five. Here at the entrance of 201 E. 2nd street, you’ll notice the cobblestone sidewalk. Now this example doesn’t strike me as hostile as big metal knobs on windowsills, but it does make it difficult to sleep here by the door for a night. 


KAITLIN: Oof. Yeah.


ASHLEY: Now, I think everyone is getting a pretty clear understanding of how hostile design can show up in an urban landscape. But, for this stop, we’re going to shift gears a bit and talk about how it can show up in schools. 


KAITLIN: And a little bit about Cardi B. 


ASHLEY: I mean, you can’t have one without the other. You’ll find out why as we hear from Christy Taylor, Architect and Partner at Chioco Design here in Austin.


CHRISTY TAYLOR: I'm going to talk a little bit about hostile design, particularly as it pertains to school design. And you might think that would be the last place where you would want to see hostile design, but in fact, there are tenants of hostile design that make their way into every component of school design. And this is particularly due to a new phenomenon. Fear of active shooter situations. So we'll talk a little bit about that and how architecture has laid the groundwork over the last many decades to allow schools to respond to active shooter scenarios, for better or worse.


But before we get into schools, I want to talk a little bit about fear and how it plays into public space. And I want to do that by telling a Cardi B story, because every good architecture talk should start with a Cardi B story. I don't know if you'll remember this, so much has happened since then, but almost two years ago to the day there was a Cardi B performance in Central Park, and the New York times reported on it. There were reports of loud popping noises, and all the attendees, tens of thousands of attendees at the concert, everyone panicked. They thought there was an active shooter situation and so everybody's running in all directions. There was a stampede. This isn't the first instance of a stampede, but you're starting to maybe recognize them a little more now before COVID, as fear spreads through a crowd very quickly and active shooters become something that sits in the back of the minds of people that attend large events.


So the stampede points to a specific kind of fear that has crept into the way that people engage with and participate in public spaces in the US. Mass shootings are statistically rare, but they have made a very common presence in our culture and they evoke fear, they incite controversy, and because of this, they have entered the realm of the architect. They have become components that we have to take into consideration when we talk about design.


So this gets us up to school. Let's talk about school design. I spent a really short amount of time in K through 12 school design at a firm that did K through 12 school design. And I was really surprised by the demands and compromises that school administrators made with allocation of bond money. Just that schools have a limited amount of resources and administrators were using those resources to establish, through design, a perceived level of protection from active shooter scenarios. For each campus that I worked on, significant portions of bond money would be allocated to retrofitting these schools with so-called secure systems. As of now, there are no official regulations for what it means to have a secure campus. Instead, it's just this kind of ongoing conversation between architects, administrators, and faculty, to determine what approaches will offer the greatest perception of safety.


And shockingly, the NRA, the National Rifle Association has positioned itself as a so-called authority in implementing school design as a tool for preventing gun violence in schools. So enter the NRA to have conversations about how to make schools safer from guns. In 2013, the NRA actually issued a 225 page document outlining its recommendations. And this is where we get back to architectural history and how insidious these things can be. This document issued by the NRA cites the tenants of something called CPTD. Crime prevention through environmental design, which is the basis of Oscar Newman's controversial 1970s theory of defensible space. And so we're getting into something called defensible space that architects should be familiar with because it is pervasive in prison design in school design, defensible space is inert hostile design. You will start to notice it anytime you're in public realms or institutional space. And it is this idea that the behavior of people well in a building can be controlled through implementation of surveillance, controlling access, and territorial reinforcement. Those are the three basic tenets of defensible space.


And so we need to be really careful when we see, first of all, the NRA talking about gun safety in schools, or how to protect from guns as separating that from gun safety, but then unwrapping that even further to look at how they quote Oscar Newman and defensible space, to talk about creating campuses where the users can be controlled, surveilled, and prevented to access schools. And I'm telling you this NRA document, it's terrifying. Their recommendations range from ballistic protective glass, steel plating, to planting thorny sharp lead shrubs to deter attackers. And today the NRA's school shield program offers free of charge training to school administrators to emphasize perimeter security and video monitoring to identify possible active shooter threats.


Hostile design can be seen in small components throughout the built environment, and here through the implementation of the tenants of defensible space, you will start to notice it on school campuses, on college campuses, certainly in prison systems, but it's really pervasive in the educational system. And that's how active shooter scenarios have led to the implementation of hostile design.

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