If you entered Toronto’s Union Station this past February and March, you were in for a surprise. Instead of a familiar waiting area, travellers and commuters were met with rows upon rows of stacked benches and restricted seating. When I visited the iconic transit hub in early March, people could be spotted crouching on ledges, sitting on the floor, and even sitting on stacked up benches. With all the caution tape and the heavy security presence, it felt like I entered a crime scene.
According to the City of Toronto the public benches were removed to promote physical distancing. A media spokesperson explains, “Some seating closures in the station have been implemented in response to the lockdown. This is consistent with the City’s approach during the Stage 1 lockdown early last year.”
Rather than removing the seating at the end of December 2020 when Toronto entered the lockdown, the mass removal of seating was first documented on February 1, 2021 by outreach workers working with people experiencing homelessness. It’s no coincidence that the removal coincided with the City issuing an extreme cold weather alert a few days before.
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary explained that about 40-50 people experiencing homelessness were using the space to warm up. “We have this real dire urgency in the moment. What are we going to do? People have nowhere to go,” Lam says. “If we remove benches, we just end up shuffling people around. So really no one is actually solving the problem, we’re really just moving people around.”
Similarly, as the polar vortex brought unseasonably cold temperatures to New York City in early February, benches were removed from the 23rd Street Subway Station. When a transit user questioned the move on Twitter, a response sent from the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s official subway feed @NYCTSubway revealed that the benches were removed because people experiencing homelessness were sleeping on them. The controversial tweet was later deleted, but not before people took to social media to condemn the anti-homeless policy.
While New York City’s transit authority was more forthcoming as to the reason for the bench removal, these two cases are similar examples of defensive urbanism. Also known as hostile, exclusive, or unpleasant design, it’s an intentional strategy that uses the built environment to guide or restrict behaviour in urban space. Control is exerted through what designers Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić call “silent agents,” design elements that are meant to manage the behaviour of people without the need for authorities to intervene. Common examples include benches segmented with centre bars, meant to keep people experiencing homelessness from lying down; spikes, like ones used against pigeons, installed on ledges to deter loitering; and stark, empty public spaces, devoid of amenities like seating, shade and public washrooms.
The addition of elements like centre bars on benches and spikes on ledges are conspicuous examples of defensive urbanism. Much less apparent is the absence of public amenities, like the removal of benches. These are what I call “ghost amenities” — public amenities like washrooms, benches, and places of shelter/shade that should be included in public spaces to support human well-being and accessibility, but are absent due to disrepair, reduced operation or intentional omission. This way of “managing” public space is implemented to reduce maintenance costs, avoid vandalism and/or to deter loitering. And while the absence and removal of amenities has profound consequences, it’s a subtle spatial strategy that’s not as widely documented as more explicit instances of defensive design. “In many cases, it is much easier to remove a feature than to alter it or construct new architecture,” writes Karl de Fine Licht, lecturer in ethics and engineering at Chalmers University of Technology.
The removal of public amenities to discourage “undesirable” behaviour is currently being promoted as a Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) technique. The City of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan was recently in the news for removing public benches from their downtown transit hub. The reason for the removal was an assault on a bus driver by someone who was using the space. Brian Howell, manager of the Saskatchewan-based low-income housing organization River Bank Development Corporation explains, “I think the discussion around doing it was around the environmental approach to reduce crime where you put up more lights and that has an upside to it, but it also has the removal side.”
Influenced by Oscar Newman’s 1972 work on Defensible Space and the idea that the design of the built environment can deter crime, CPTED uses a number of strategies to reduce real and perceived crime including access control, surveillance, and territorial reinforcement. CPTED is largely disseminated by police departments and CPTED consultants, former policing and security professionals who approach the design of public space through a lens of enforcement. However, these design practices are based upon unquestioned — and often unsubstantiated — assumptions about crime and public safety. US-based Design as Protest Collective calls for an end to CPTED, arguing that “these efforts often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety, and the breaching of these efforts promotes unwarranted interaction with the police.”
What’s more, removing benches under the pretext of community safety creates barriers for people with disabilities. “Setting aside the fact that removing benches to avoid or to undermine places for people who are homeless to get some rest or to sit down is horrific and given that homeless people are disproportionately people with mental health and other disabilities, it’s got huge disability implications” notes David Lepofsky, lawyer, disability advocate, and chair of the AODA Alliance.
“You can’t create new barriers against people with disabilities. That is presumptively a human rights code and a charter violation,” says Lepofsky. “And to go out and spend money to create new barriers is even worse. If an organization like Union Station went in there and removed benches, that would be creating a new barrier to public transit for people with anemia, chronic fatiguing conditions, and stamina issues.”
The Toronto Transit Commission and GO Transit have acknowledged the importance of public seating in virtue of having designated seating areas on subway platforms and at the front of vehicles. As Toronto-based lawyer Caryma Sa’d points out, “there is already an explicit recognition that different commuters will have different needs… I would argue that in deciding to take away the benches, it doesn’t appear that a disability or equity lens was considered because otherwise we would have likely seen a different outcome.”
Howell argues that the bench removal simply doesn’t work. “It’s not a good strategy, it’s better to focus on community strengths,” he says. “Rather than removing space, maybe we need to look for space that could be used by homeless people and plan to set something up where people could in fact, hang out, have a coffee and not really bother anyone.”
Removing or restricting public amenities as a way to “manage” public space is bad public policy that urgently needs to be re-examined. In attempting to remove one group of people from public space, we have created environments that are hostile for all, especially for our city’s most vulnerable residents. Amenities like benches and washrooms are not merely nice to have — they are essential infrastructure that allow people to access benefits of public space.
Cara Chellew examines the widespread restriction of public seating as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.