What do cities’ metal spikes, studded window sills, and uncomfortably-shaped seats have in common? By controlling for behaviors like loitering, these elements target the homeless and impoverished—in other words, those who rely on public space the most. This is where the idea of hostile architecture originates. As much as cities try to justify hostile architecture as forms of security, the means entails shunning the impoverished and perpetuating prejudice. Thus, in this article, we use India as a case study for how hostile architecture literally fights poverty rather than addressing its root causes.
For the past few decades, India has seen a boom in development. In response to the economic promises of urbanization, more and more people flocked to its cities. As India’s GDP grew, however, so did its levels of income inequality: with the top 10% of the population controlling 55% of its wealth, India is the second most economically-unequal country in the world. The effects of this poverty are especially apparent in urban centers like Delhi and Mumbai. Indeed, despite a 28% decline in homelessness in rural India, there’s been a 20% increase in cities.
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to fight poverty, many municipalities have turned to hostile architecture as a way to fight its visibility. Pali Hill, for instance, is a western suburb of Bandra with a large concentration of film stars. To cater to this group, the area is thus beautified with lush trees, flower beds, and minimalist boundary walls. Running counter to this impression of luxury is the hostile architecture pervading the neighborhood.
From the curbs to the flower beds, it’s common to see jagged, granite studs jutting out at different angles. Considering this in conjunction with the complete lack of footpaths, Pali Hill sends a strong message: loiterers, pedestrians, and residents’ domestic employees are not to be seen. Considering the number of domestic workers in the neighborhood (the residents’ maids, drivers, cleaners, and security staff), it would be logical to provide benches rather than embed flat surfaces with stone spikes. However, it seems that the area would rather display sharp rocks than lower-class citizens.
It’s also important to note that these urban choices were made consciously. Pali Hill, after all, is tended by the Pali Hill Residents Association, an organization that consistently advertises how strongly it values residents’ interests. Those left behind by this tunnel vision? The comfort of those looking for a place to sit and ordinary citizens more generally. In this way, hostile architecture not only highlights class divisions in a visual sense but also reinforces their effects through lived experience.
Another example of hostile architecture is the spike mat infamously installed outside HDFC’s Fort area branch in Mumbai. Back in March of 2018, the branch lined their window ledge with these spikes under the guise of “prevent loitering.” Although the spikes were not technically on the public sidewalk and were eventually removed, the fact that they were employed at all conveyed a clear sentiment to the area’s underprivileged individuals. Evidently, HDFC wasn’t targeting wealthier patrons whose business they craved, but people with whom they didn’t want to associate.
In addition to the homeless, another demographic targeted by this move was street vendors. “In the blazing afternoon sun, the space was used to sit down for a while and rest,” explained one hawker. “We didn’t dirty the place or cause any damage. The spikes are like knives and can hurt anyone. Anyway, people didn’t sit there all day; the bank’s security guards didn’t allow it.”
The vendors’ crime, it appears, was their presence. Although street vendors make up 2.5% of India’s population, they are oftentimes looked down upon for peddling goods in public spaces. In particularly urbanized, wealthy, or well-off spaces, it seems that hawkers serve as a subconscious reminder of the country’s poverty. Even as these individuals strive to support themselves through honest means, they’re shunned from the urban sphere.
Public spaces belong to all, not just the privileged. Thus, if cities don’t want vagrants sleeping or camping in public spaces, the causes of poverty—and not the symptoms—must be addressed. The government of Kerala, for instance, offers a model that the national government could follow. As of 2019, the state began surveying its homeless population, evaluating who qualified for need-based housing and then erecting flats based on its findings. Through providing shelter, the government allowed hundreds of families to focus on getting jobs rather than where they’re going to sleep. If Prime Minister Narendra could institute a similar initiative on a national scale, perhaps India could reach its Housing For All goal of housing every Indian by 2022.
All in all, hostile architecture is part of the problem, not the solution. When cities try using hostile architecture to “improve” spaces, what they’re actually doing is enforcing class disparities and pushing the impoverished to the peripheries. By addressing its structural causes rather than its visible symptoms, only then can poverty ever be truly resolved.