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  • Cara Chellew

The Devil's in the (Design) Details

All around us, urban design shapes how we experience the city. It sets the stage for our everyday lives, from the large scale designs of city blocks to the human scale of a neighbourhood park. It's at the human scale where the placement, quality, and accessibility of public amenities matter the most.

It’s unfortunate then, when Toronto’s public spaces (and the amenities within) are designed to be less than humane.

From benches with a centre “armrest” that keeps homeless people from sleeping on them, to ledges designed to prevent skateboarding or sitting, defensive urban design has become commonplace in Toronto. Also known as hostile, unpleasant, or exclusive architecture, it’s a pervasive design strategy that uses elements in the built environment to guide or restrict behaviour in urban space as a form of crime prevention or protection of property.

The majority of forms target people who use or rely on public space more than others, like people who are homeless and youth. It does this by restricting the behaviours they engage in, like sleeping in public or skateboarding. Not only does it move along or displace people who are already marginalized, it makes them invisible. Who we see in our public spaces informs our idea of who is a part of the public. When our public spaces don’t accurately reflect the people living in our neighbourhoods, it creates a distorted version of the city that cannot address the needs of its citizens.

In addition to targeting so-called “undesirable” people, defensive design also makes navigating public spaces difficult for others. For people who are blind or hard of seeing, the addition of skate deterrents on ledges can be hazardous if accidentally tripped on or sat upon. Furthermore, the absence or removal of public amenities like benches and public washrooms (what I call ghost amenities) can make public space inaccessible for people who are elderly or have a disability.

Presently, there are no guidelines that regulate the use of defensive urban design in the city. Not only does its use potentially discriminate against people who are homeless, it makes public spaces more hostile for everyone, especially vulnerable users.

Over the past few weeks, Toronto’s city planners have been holding public consultation meetings on its public realm policies as part of the 5 year review of the Official Plan. While amendments that encourage walkability and accessibility are welcome, planners should include policies that regulate the use of defensive urban design.

In order to create a public realm that supports the quality of life for all people in the city, we must rein in the use of defensive urban design.

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