Urban Studies Hostile Design
Robert Rosenberger
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0079


The notion of “hostile design” or “hostile architecture” has become an important part of online critical analyses of the politics of public spaces, and it is now increasingly receiving academic attention. These lines of academic study and criticism at once build on long-established insights and research from across a variety of disciplines, and at the same time represent a reinvigorated focus on the specifics of the design of public spaces. An expanding variety of specific objects in public spaces are investigated as instances of hostile design. However, a few have become go-to examples. Public-space benches are often called out for the ways their designs make it difficult to use them as a place to sleep. Such designs can include the addition of armrests or seat dividers, or bucket seating arrangements. Another central example is spikes added to ledges to deter people from sitting or leaning. Skatestoppers—i.e., small, often metal nubs—are affixed to railings or ledges to ward off skateboarders looking to do tricks. And also a multitude of other objects have been criticized as examples of hostile design, from garbage can lids that deter trash picking to public-space security cameras that encourage people to behave themselves to loud sound systems that discourage loitering or camping to sprinkler systems that water down potential sleeping spaces to locks on fire hydrants to bollards to fences and even to the absence of expected public-space amenities (such as restrooms, water fountains, sidewalks, and shade). There are many populations that are targeted by hostile design, including loitering youths, skateboarders, and the poor. However, those living unhoused are possibly the most consistently subjected, and hostile design has become a part of the larger strategies that many cities take up in addressing the problem of homelessness. The topic of hostile design has enabled a new path into the study and criticism of long-standing issues in the politics of the built environment. The novelty and open-ended statuses of these ideas can be seen in the fact that there are many different terms in usage within this literature to refer to these same public-space objects in addition to “hostile design” and “hostile architecture,” including “unpleasant design,” “architectural exclusion,” “disciplinary architecture,” and “defensible space,” among others. And most often, the notion of hostile design is wielded as a term of criticism. Or as Petty 2016 (cited under Specific Objects of Hostility) puts it, hostile design is “a pejorative term usually used to signify opposition to the structure identified” (p. 69). Thus, for many scholars at least, these ideas retain a normative edge. While it is possible to connect work on these issues to a vast history of research and thought on urban space across a variety of disciplines, what follows in this article focuses on contemporary pieces on this specific topic.

Monographs and Collections

The topic of hostile design and architecture is new enough to academic study that there are, as yet, no full-length monographs on this specific topic (although of course there are innumerable books on the politics of the built environment across many disciplines). However, two important collections of materials have made valuable contributions to thinking on these issues. A pioneering collection of theory pieces, interviews, and artworks can be found in Savičić and Savić 2013. Another important collection has been developed by Interboro Partners, Armborst, et al. 2017, which is an expansive inventory of topics and designs. Both collections are highly curated, full of interesting aesthetic choices and eclectic assortments of issues and images. The only monograph on the specific topic of hostile design to my knowledge so far is Rosenberger 2017, a short book that offers a polemic against anti-homeless design and builds on the philosophy of technology to develop an account of these issues.

  • Armborst, Tobias, Daniel D’Oca, Georgeen Theodore, and Riley Gold, eds. The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion. New York: Actar, 2017.

    Published by the Interboro Partners urban planning and design firm, this book serves as a kind of encyclopedia of the various ways that spaces are created to enable or limit access. Over 450 colorful pages include short entries written by various authors on a variety of related topics, such as bench armrests, “No Loitering” signage, public housing, beach tags, and redlining. Selections available online.

  • Rosenberger, Robert. Callous Objects: Designs against the Homeless. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.5749/9781452958538

    A pocket-sized critique of anti-homeless design. Includes the review of various examples of hostile design that target the homeless population, connects those patterns of hostile design to larger systems of laws that also target the unhoused, and develops theoretical concepts from the philosophy of technology (including ideas from postphenomenology, feminist standpoint theory, actor-network theory, and critical theory) to help conceptualize these phenomena.

  • Savičić, Gordan, and Selena Savić, eds. Unpleasant Design. Belgrade, Serbia: G.L.O.R.I.A, 2013.

    An important early book that catalogs what the editors refer to as “unpleasant design,” bringing together a collection of essays, interviews, case studies, and art pieces. These entries zero in on the phenomenon of the design of unpleasantness, with a focus on public spaces.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.