How design limits the homeless from camping, sleeping in public spaces in Salt Lake City

Advocates argue ‘hostile architecture’ doesn’t address the underlying causes of homelessness or help move people off the streets

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Large rocks have replaced the Grayson the park strip near the corner to 700 South and State Street, where unsheltered people used to pitch their tents, Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Jagged rocks fill a park strip that was once green with grass near the Salt Lake City women’s homeless shelter. A metal armrest juts up in the middle of the benches at the city’s Fairmont Park. And at Pioneer Park, which was once the epicenter of homelessness in the state, there are no benches at all.

These subtle environmental interventions are largely invisible to many in Utah’s capital city. But people experiencing homelessness recognize the designs as a way to discourage those without homes from tent camping in certain areas or sleeping in public parks.

The rocks that were recently put in near the Geraldine King Women’s Resource Center on 700 South, for example, “have made it so they can’t camp on that side,” noted one homeless woman, who did not wish to be named, in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “So there’s nowhere for anyone to go.”

Proponents of so-called “hostile architecture” say it’s sometimes necessary in order to put an end to unwanted behaviors. But opponents and academics who study the effort say it sends a message to people experiencing homelessness that they aren’t wanted in the community and don’t belong.

“These [are] visual cues and visual indications that there are certain members of our society that we don’t want in certain places; they’re not welcome,” said Sarah Canham, an associate professor at the University of Utah in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning. “We essentially are dehumanizing them.”

“Defensive architecture,” as it’s also known, is sometimes aimed at skateboarders, with designs characterized by metallic knobs jutting out of previously smooth surfaces that keep someone from wheeling down them.

Many more examples are aimed at unhoused communities, with anti-homeless architecture in cities around the world ranging from anti-sleep benches to street spikes or spiked window sills that keep someone from resting in a particular area.

But people outside of these populations almost never notice how their environment is designed to privilege some behaviors over others, noted Canham, who teaches a course at the U. that examines the distribution of social, environmental and economic resources in cities.

“People who aren’t subject to these feelings of dehumanization and otherness aren’t aware of this necessarily,” she said. “They kind of just go through society and the world and everything’s fine because they don’t have that constant confrontation with things that are trying to keep them out and trying to keep them down.”

Whether they’re visible to the public at large or not, Canham argues that the effort to prevent people experiencing homelessness from using public spaces in certain ways is problematic, because design can’t address the root challenges that cause people to become homeless or the barriers that keep them from exiting the streets.

“Essentially the effect is to completely displace them, and we have to ask to where?” she said. “If there are people who are unsheltered, they have to go somewhere and you don’t have enough shelter beds for the people. And so then it’s like, what is our system solution that we’re talking about?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The grass park strip, where unsheltered people used to pitch their tents, has been replaced by rocks in front of the Liberty Senior Center on 700 South 250 East, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

‘The rocks don’t do any good’

The parking strip in front of the Liberty Senior Center in Salt Lake City — nestled between the Geraldine King Women’s Resource Center down the street to the west and Taufer Park immediately to the east — used to be a popular place for people experiencing homelessness to pitch a tent.

But the space has recently become inhospitable to campers, after the senior center pulled out the grass in the park strip and put rocks in its place at the beginning of this year.

Paul Leggett, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County division of aging and adult services, said in an email that the rocks are “an environmental design intervention to prevent long term gatherings in that location.”

“Those gatherings were not compatible with Aging & Adult Services use of the building,” he added. “By installing the rocks, we were also able to resolve public health concerns outside the facility.”

The center decided to put the rocks in, he said, after regular vandalism and human waste became such a prevalent issue that a landscaper said it would no longer be willing to provide services if things didn’t change. There were also older adults who attended the center who reported to staff “that they did not feel safe coming to pick up lunch,” prompting the senior center to move its lunch program to a different building temporarily.

Once the encampment was cleared out in October 2020, the senior center found that the grass and sprinkler system had been damaged and decided to replace it with rock “as it was a more sustainable option, as well as something that would deter these public health concerns returning to the center,” Leggett said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This Sept. 9, 2020, file photo shows Richard Ryan discussing his options as he's about to be forced to move his camp at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City.

Rocks have also recently been added in a park strip a little down the road, on the corner of 700 South and State Street.

Penny Payton, a 45-year-old who has stayed at the Geraldine King Resource Center, said in an interview that she recognizes the rocks are a way for property owners to “protect their business.”

“But I just think they’re going about it the wrong way,” she added.

A better solution in her eyes would have been to allow camping there overnight but make people clear out in the morning. Even better, she said, local leaders should have built more beds into the homeless resource center system.

“I really think they should have done the Sears building into the shelter,” Payton said, referencing the shuttered big box department store on State Street and 700 South. “We would have a lot more room than what this has, could accommodate a lot more.”

For Michelle Nathan, a 48-year-old who has camped in the area near the women’s shelter at times, the rocks are “truly a prayer answered.” She hopes that they will keep away some people who she says strategically stay in the encampments to prey on the women who get “exited” from the shelter for breaking the rules.

“I prayed the rosary to get the guys to leave,” she said. “I don’t believe the men should be camped out here.”

But a homeless woman The Tribune interviewed who did not want to be named said the group of campers who previously set up in front of the senior center haven’t gone away — they’ve just moved down the street.

“All that is happening is they disperse,” she said. “They’re [still] waiting for the women to come out. If you go watch, most of the women that come out of there are disabled, mentally ill, some kind of vulnerability. And there are predators right outside waiting for them. The thing is, the rocks don’t do any good.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Nathan with her dog, on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Discouraging overnight stays

While the rocks present a relatively new case study of hostile architecture in the city, other examples are more long standing, such as the “anti-sleep” benches in several Salt Lake City parks that have an armrest in the middle that keep someone from lying across them.

These benches aren’t present within all of the city’s public spaces, or even at some of its biggest.

That’s likely because benches with armrests have become more common in the city just over the past decade and are only put in a park when an old bench needs to be replaced, according to Kristin Riker, deputy director of public lands in Salt Lake City.

These armrest benches, which will become the default for replaced benches in the future, are installed for a variety of reasons, she said, including accessibility, since benches with backrests and armrests “better accommodate the elderly and those with accessibility needs.”

But Riker said the seating design is also one of several methods the city uses to discourage overnight stays — including “lighting, maintenance of trees and brush, and security” — in line with city ordinances that close parks at night and prohibit camping.

“Parks are closed at dusk in order to irrigate, and also because of safety issues,” she said in an email. “Illegal activity can take place in City Parks late at night and that activity can have impacts on the daytime use of the park by the City’s residents. Ultimately our role is to ensure that the City’s parks remain safe public spaces for everyone that wants to use them.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park benches at Fairmont Park have an armrest in the middle, on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Oftentimes, hostile architecture takes the form of a physical object that deters people from using space in a certain way. But the lack of an object can also shape the way people use public space — such as the absence of any benches at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, which was once the epicenter for homeless services in the city.

The missing benches have a disproportionate impact on people “looking for somewhere to rest or to sit for the day because you don’t have a home or you’re out of the shelter for the day,” Canham said.

Riker said the benches were taken out of the park more than five years ago. As the city kicks off a public engagement process to hear how residents want new funding used to improve the park, benches could be added back in, she said.

Scott Howell, a leader with the Pioneer Park Coalition, said he can’t remember a time when there were benches at the park and doesn’t think their absence was the result of a concerted effort to keep people experiencing homelessness from using the space.

And if it was, he said that’s something he wouldn’t personally support.

“You can’t segment the marketplace of a park in my opinion,” he said. “A park is a place for everyone. If some people lay down on a bench, I think that might be me laying down on a bench. That might be you going over, taking 15 minutes in the brisk, beautiful sun and just enjoying it.”

The best way to address homelessness, he said, is to get people who are unsheltered “back on their feet through jobs and help them get to their mental health appointments, help them get to their addiction recovery.”

“I don’t know that much about [hostile architecture],” he added. “But I don’t think that’s a way to solve it.”

Canham agreed that defensive architecture is not a long-term solution. And ultimately, she stressed that public spaces are for everyone — including people experiencing homelessness.

“In these public spaces we are all neighbors,” she said. “We are all in this together. We are all part of this community, so it is not appropriate in my opinion to suggest that one person has more value than another person. And by having these symbols in our communities that purposefully exclude a section of our community ... that is not the community that I want to live in.”

Correction • March 21, 5:56 p.m. > There are anti-sleep benches at Liberty Park. A previous version of this report indicated otherwise.