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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #6: 200 Congress Ave | Around The Austonian

KAITLIN: You have reached stop number six. Here along Second St., starting on the west side of Congress, you can see many examples of hostile design decisions. Check out all the ledges nearby. There are lots around the Austonian. Most of them have raised metal plates that serve both as grinder minders, but also make it impossible to comfortably lie down on any of these spots.


ASHLEY: There are also a ton of benches up and down Second that have an armrest in the center, preventing anyone from lying down on them, or they are simply too short to lie down on. 


KAITLIN: As we look around and see the many ways that the built environment shapes who feels welcome in our city, we start to wonder how it will shift in the future. And in particular, how technology will impact the decisions that designers are able to make. As the era of smart cities are ushered in, with it comes new possibilities in how to build inclusive public spaces. To help us get a glimpse of what the future may hold, we talked to Chelsea Collier, founder of Digi.City.


CHELSEA COLLIER: Hostile design is all about stopping living beings from doing things. For example when you see spikes, knobs or rails on walls or window sills, they are purposefully put there to prevent people - or even birds - from resting. 


Wouldn’t it be better if we could design cities to take care of people instead of push them away? In this scenario we don’t have to choose between 

  • Business owners who want to create an enjoyable environment for their customers 

  • Or pedestrians who want to walk down the sidewalk uninterrupted 

  • Or our city’s most vulnerable who are struggling to meet their most basic needs


If designed appropriately, we can take care of everyone without having to resort to hostile design elements. It simply requires thinking differently, doing things differently and using technology in an ethical way to deliver better, more human-centric approaches. 


All around us, billions of devices are capturing data on everything from how we drive to what we purchase to how we move about a city. And while we need to be vigilant and aware of what data is collected, how that data is collected and who has access to it, there are some communities that are leveraging the power of data collection for good. 


In 2017, The City of Seattle paired a social outreach team with the Seattle Police Department to connect unsheltered people to housing and resources. They developed an app called the NavApp 2.0 to improve their ability to better collect data on current conditions, share information on available resources and integrate data from other systems.


Fast forward to today and this technology has supported thousands of people which has been especially critical in the global pandemic. Just since March 2020, NavApp has supported almost 5,000 conversations with people experiencing homelessness about COVID-19, allowing teams to provide supplies such as hygiene kits, PPE and boxed meals as well as distribute thousands of flyers and printed information.


This is just one example of how we can design technology to serve people rather than design hostile environments to push people away. And while no one approach will solve all, it is definitely worth considering how to leverage data for the social good and better understand what is happening in our community in real-time. 


So what are the pathways forward? To make sure we are designing appropriately, we have to engage everyone in the community to participate in the conversation. This means inviting government officials, business leaders and social sector advocates, along with our residents to share experiences, perspectives and approaches.


The future of our cities can be exciting and usher in a new level of data-informed, human-centered design. Hostile design elements like those spikes, knobs and rails will one day seem archaic and even barbaric. 


Personally, I’m looking forward to that kinder, more digital city. And I believe in the power of technology to help us get there.

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