Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.
“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral a while back. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.
In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.
We saw this again this week, when the Independent published a story about howhomeowners in Bristol have attached spikes to trees to stop birds from defecating on their cars. We’re manipulating our environment in an almost dystopian manner, weaponsing space to keep away unwanted animals, unwanted humans. Urban design needs its ‘swords into ploughshares’ moment.
Because all of this is dehumanising, and dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. We should therefore celebrate the moments humanity wins through, however; in Manchester, anti-homeless spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.
There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we‘re using the spaces around us.
This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.
So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature. And it would be wrong to say that this is entirely negative – here in the UK there are textured sections of pavement to help blind people and guide dogs cross the road, and my favourite piece of hidden design is a small gizmo on the underside of pelican crossings that rotates when the traffic lights change, thus alerting those who can’t hear the signal.
There’s an opportunity here for Christians. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.
How do we respond to that?