Stranger Than Fiction

Fiction has to be possible. The truth doesn't.

Exclusion by design: Hostile architecture in Denver

By Robb Corker and Dominick Zangara

An apartment building is surrounded by rocks in Curtis Park. (Source: Kevin J. Beaty from Denverite)

The unhoused population of Denver is under constant threat from environmental danger and social exclusion. Hostile architecture seems to combine the two. Hostile architecture is the practice of using design elements of public spaces to prohibit certain uses or behaviors, and typically aims to make areas unusable or uninhabitable for the unhoused population.

Such methods include putting a metal armrest in the middle of park benches, placing large rocks in popular campsites, and using fencing to prevent public access to strips of land that would otherwise be accessible. It can also include the absence of things such as benches. While these techniques may seem like innocuous nuisances, they carry deeper ramifications for the communities they populate.

Despite efforts and funding going towards trying to mitigate the issue of homelessness in Denver, the city saw a 44% leap in unhoused population from 2021 to 2022, and the city is primed to spend almost a quarter of a billion dollars on homelessness and housing stability in 2023.

Several variations exist on these familiar themes, like fencing off a dry corner in the city or covering a habitable area with parking blocks. (Source: Robb Corker of Stranger Than Fiction)

How to best deal with Denver’s “homeless problem” has become a hot topic in the upcoming mayoral race. Ideas range from housing them in property bought with public money to having police officers basically do stop-and-frisk style mental health checks before deciding whether to take individuals to mental hospitals.

Denver has implemented several solutions to dealing with homelessness. One such technique is sweeps, where the city comes to an illegal camp and tells the tenants they’ve got an hour to get their stuff and go. Another popular idea is the oldest version of hostile architecture: fences. The city will often combine sweeps with hostile architecture by sweeping a population from an area before installing fencing and other impediments.

“If the encampment gets swept, what happens next is hostile architecture,” says Benjamin Denning, an organizer for local homeless advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL). “If homeless people are being visible there, they will do stuff to prevent them from being there so you don’t see visible poverty.”

The importance of optics versus utility of public space is a common theme when talking with experts and those affected by hostile architecture.

“As I understand it, hostile architecture is a manifestation of a broader social and economic pressure to populate public spaces with people who appear to be employed, housed, young, attractive, reproductive (i.e. having families), and as a result of all of this, likely to pay for goods and services rather than just sitting in a park,” said Dr. Aimee Hamraie, Associate Professor of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. “This is also part of a culture of privatizing public spaces and amenities.”

One of the most prevalent forms of hostile architecture in Denver is fencing. Property owners have begun fencing off sidewalks or lawn patches in order to prevent homeless people from setting up camp in those areas, commonly using plastic, orange fencing wrapped around any area they want to prevent people from sleeping in.

Property owners require a permit in order to put up such fencing. However, such steps are often ignored, with fenced off areas still remaining prevalent. According to an investigation from Rocky Mountain PBS, the Capitol Hill area of Denver is littered with fenced off areas that have been put in place without proper permitting. Despite this, the Department of Transportation and the Interior (DOTI) didn’t make any attempts to remove the fencing, despite receiving 26 complaints from community members about such fencing.

Data from Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program by the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Exchange and graphic by Robb Corker of Stranger Than Fiction. The data includes both sheltered and unsheltered unhoused people.

“The city, who’s responsible for the enforcement of these things, won’t take the time to enforce these things,” Dunning says.

While the brunt of such strategies is felt by homeless communities in the city, hostile architecture has an impact on the broader communities that contain it. People with disabilities struggle to use public spaces featuring hostile architecture intended to police the behaviors of the unhoused.

“My wife is a wheelchair user…so some of these–let’s call them “improvements”–make life a lot harder for her and other folks in our community who are experiencing disability, especially those angled benches I was talking about,” said Aurora city councilman for ward 4 Juan Marcano. “They’re already enough of a p.i.t.a. [pain in the ass] for an able-bodied person like myself, but for my wife and others, they’re not able to utilize those without excruciating pain.”

Dr. Hamraie echoed the sentiments shared by Councilman Marcano.

“For many disabled people, the entire built environment (or most of it at least) is incredibly hostile,” said Hamraie. “We may not typically think of unhoused people as part of the population of disabled people, but they may in fact be some of the most marginalized disabled people.”

The implements used in hostile architecture are often a disturbance in day to day life. In March of last year, rocks put in to prevent the homeless from lying down also blocked bikers from safely locking their bikes at a bike rack.

Residents have complained that the aforementioned fencing can obstruct the vision of drivers in Capitol Hill, making it hard to see what’s in front of them when turning.

Beyond safety concerns, another element is the aesthetic impact it has on the city.

“It uglifies the cities,” Dunning says. “Who wants to sit in a little patch of grass that’s no longer a patch of grass because you turned it into boulder sized rocks?”

One of the biggest problems with hostile architecture is the mindset that motivates it when it comes to addressing the homelessness crisis. Practices involved with hostile architecture don’t work to mitigate the struggles of homeless people or reduce the rate of homelessness. Instead, all that hostile architecture accomplishes is moving the struggles of homeless people out of sight from the broader public.

“They find every little way,” Dunning said. “If homeless people are being visible there, they will do stuff to prevent them from being there so you don’t see visible poverty.”

The visible signs of poverty are getting harder to hide in Denver as housing prices plateau from soaring rates for the last two years. (Source: RJ Sangosti of The Denver Post)

Hostile architecture is a band-aid that covers up a symptom rather than addressing the root issue.

“To start, actually addressing the real issue by meeting people’s needs, primarily in resolving homelessness through housing and wraparound supports,” said a representative from Denver City Coucilwoman for District 9 Candi CdeBaca.

Councilman Marcano offered actionable advice on alternatives to hostile architecture that requires fewer resources.

“One example I’ve seen is folks were camping near a restaurant kind of close to an overpass, and what this city did was turn that area…into a little plaza,” said Marcano. “Then what ended up happening was that area started being used by patrons of the nearby restaurants. The folks who were camping in that area moved to another location because…they felt out of place.”






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