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Story Publication logo May 23, 2024

Landscaping and Architecture Choices Hide Community Debate Over Homelessness

A little girl stands with an umbrella next to a flooded street

W&M students developed reporting and writing skills with the support of Pulitzer Center staff.

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Planters in the Mission District. Image by Sarah Devendorf.

In the trendy Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco, Max Dubler notices the bike racks. Look at how they are spaced, he says. He points at trees, gates, and planters. They are placed intentionally, he says.

One of San Francisco's biggest land-use debates is hidden in plain sight.

It’s no coincidence those large metal planters began to appear in areas where unhoused people set up tent cities, says Dubler, who earned his master’s in urban and regional planning from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and now is a fellow at California YIMBY, a statewide housing advocacy organization. 

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Many residents and business owners commented that tents were set up all along the sidewalks and green spaces in the Mission District and after their action to install planters that can hold 50 to 150 gallons, the population of unhoused people has decreased in the area significantly. Surprisingly, it is not the city of San Francisco that is leading the charge on clearing encampments but residents who wish to see cleaner streets. 

It is not a coincidence that people had to move elsewhere because there was no longer enough space to camp. In a city where streets are being manicured to keep people out, a flower box is not just a flower box anymore. Seemingly mundane choices of landscaping and architecture hide a much larger debate about how communities can deal with the growing problem of homelessness.

The presence of these extra sidewalk features prompts different reactions from residents and activists. Some call the planters hostile and a human rights issue, while others see them as built-in free security that blends into the environment. They see these architectural choices as a logical response to a situation that is difficult but cannot be fixed by allowing encampments on the streets.

Fences built under a highway in the Mission District with an encampment to the right of the fences. Image by Sarah Devendorf.

According to an article in March 2024 from CBS News, the planters are coming from desperate property owners struggling with the city’s policy not to remove the encampments. Unable to feel safe, they are going against the city’s wishes and pushing the encampments out themselves.

In many ways, the debate about landscaping shows the intractability of the larger problem of homelessness in San Francisco. Without clear government solutions, the problem rests on residents and business owners and their flower pots.

Although the term “hostile architecture” is recent, the use of civil engineering to achieve social engineering is not and has been in effect since the 19th century. The Agenda For International Development reported in 2019 that this particular type of hostile architecture specifically targeting unhoused people is a relatively new phenomenon, suggesting that it is rapidly becoming more aggressive and unpleasant in its pursuit of keeping unhoused people away. 

According to the report, what is even more concerning is that it is taking different forms, more and more of which are unobservable to the untrained eye. Elements from spikes disguised as artistic designs to park benches not built to be slept on are anti-loitering architecture.

Bike racks lining the street in the Mission District. Image by Sarah Devendorf.

Bus shelter in the North of the Panhandle. Image by Sarah Devendorf.

This social engineering and curation has gotten so visible in major American cities like San Francisco that organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless have released pages-long reports on the adverse effects of hidden hostile architecture.

Dubler walked in only about a five-block radius for about 20 minutes and spotted over a dozen instances of hostile architecture in the Mission District. Some streets featured large circular bike racks that Dubler explained foster an increase in bicycle use for tourists and residents but can also be seen as a way of keeping encampments off the sidewalks and away from businesses.

Dubler walked to a brick square near the US-101 interstate that had green palm trees in between the planters under bright blue skies and a haphazard assimilation of large steel planters filled with dirt on the ground. Dubler explained that a little less than a year ago, the square was filled with tents, and residents added these planters to push them out, consequently making the space unusable as a seating area or courtyard with benches for pedestrians looking to sit down in the middle of their day. The planters are large enough to ensure no tent could fit on the brick space. The planters also traveled up the street and around the corner lining the interstate, leaving a trace of where the encampments formerly lived.

As Dubler walked to the end of a sidewalk where he could see under the highway, he explained that while San Francisco does not have spikes or rocks under the interstate, the city did build large, 10-foot-high fences that fill the undersides of highways built to push encampments out and leave the unhoused without shelter.

Other individuals view these fences and planters as positive additions to the built environment, as exemplified by resident testimonies. Glen O’Keeffe, a native of San Francisco currently living in Oakland, California, is a former police officer who has often encountered the struggle between residents and the unhoused. Just this past month, an unhoused man used a vacant residence in the same neighborhood as O’Keeffe’s home as shelter.

“He broke into it and squatted, but he also started problems in the community and in the area. We told him, like, you can’t do that just here,” O’Keefe said. “I mean, he was coming out at 2:00 in the morning screaming … you just can’t yell and scream at 2:00 in the morning. People have to get up early, and he was starting to come out of the house with fewer and fewer pieces of clothing on.”

Frustrated residents and business owners took it upon themselves to remove him from the neighborhood by contacting the police. Just like the other unhoused in the area, residents do not know what happened to him after the removal.

“We kind of got together and said, 'Look, you just got to go.' He was bringing other people in, and they had mental health issues. They brought problems like defecating on the sidewalk ... just stuff you can’t do,” O’Keeffe added.

Planters in the Mission District. Image by Sarah Devendorf.

John J. Bauters, a formerly unhoused person, a current City Council member, and former mayor of the City of Emeryville, has a different definition of hostile architecture. In several Californian cities like San Francisco and Emeryville, bus shelters have been built that have individual seats with armrests in between instead of full benches. He says that housing advocates have previously informed him that these bus shelters are hostile because they do not allow for the unhoused or older adults to lie down on them.

“Bus shelters were never meant to be beds,” stated Bauters.

Bauters said that creating benches and bus shelter seats with armrests allows for older adults to get up and get on the bus easier than if there were no armrests at all. To him and others who work in city planning, something as simple as an armrest can help many residents move and carry on with their day. To advocates of the unhoused, they are symbols of isolation as they force the unhoused to look elsewhere for a place to sleep.

Toccarra Nicole Thomas, director of Land Use and Development at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit with the goal of creating livable and walkable cities and towns for all communities, believes that hostile architecture is an under-discussed, but commonly used method of social control.

“We create our environments to keep out people we deem as undesirable ... we have decided as a society that we are comfortable with punishing others and punishing ourselves in the process,” Thomas said.

When asked if the planters are set up by residents or contracted by the city or some combination of both, Dubler replied, “It's generally property owners.” In some cases, the property owners do own the sidewalks in front and around their townhouses, and in other cases the city owns the land. Residents are setting up their own architecture to push out encampments, which means that many unhoused are left without shelter and are pushed to the fringes of society.

The architecture also makes much of the environment in San Francisco unusable by all residents and tourists because they are unable to sit or move in the way that they wish as stated by Thomas. Only the city government can remove these street features, especially if on public property like city sidewalks and other public spaces. However, the city government is selective in what they remove.  

Thomas went on to state that while the architecture is built under the guise of beautification, the real reason for it is to curate an idyllic society that does not benefit the majority of people, meaning the unhoused, older adults, people with disabilities, and small children.

“People do not know what hostile architecture is because it is visually received as decorative and therefore overlooked. People do not ask questions about it,” Thomas said.

Notably, there is nothing illegal about sleeping outside in San Francisco. People cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property if no adequate alternatives are available, such as quality shelters. This is a point of frustration for local governments and residents looking to curb encampments, which is why hostile architecture continues to rise on the West Coast.

In January, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that San Francisco’s policies for clearing encampments are fundamentally unjust and illegal under past court decisions, protecting the rights of unhoused people to sleep in public.

The tiny-homes craze has also increased in the last decade as they have been framed as temporary housing solutions designed to give unhoused individuals and families dignity as they search for employment and other housing options. They keep the unhoused off the streets and spare them from living in a shelter that is fraught with its own challenges.

However, affordable-housing advocates have stated that while tiny homes are better than many alternatives, they are sometimes no bigger than a garden shed and act as a big Band-Aid on the more significant issue of a lack of integrated housing on the West Coast.

“A tiny home is not the solution to the problem. ... A tiny home is certainly better than being unsheltered in a tent, on the sidewalk, or in a designated safe sleeping place. It’s probably better than being in an RV ... I just think, like, the solution to homelessness is homes,” Dubler said. 

Bauters corroborated this point and suggested that the popularity of tiny homes might be part of the problem and not the solution.

“Ideally, you want permanent homes for people,” said Bauters.

According to Bauters, tiny homes tend to spread on the land and are unlikely to be built up tall. Therefore, building thousands of tiny homes is simply not feasible because dense cities like San Francisco do not have the space to hold them.

Bauters and other advocates for equitable housing say that collaboration is needed to accommodate every lifestyle in the design of streets and to create affordable permanent housing so that unhoused communities do not need to scramble for limited available shelter space.






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