ONTARIO PLANNING JOURNAL
Its mundanity makes it innocuous. Its common sense
approach makes it pervasive. But once you see it, it’s
impossible to stop noticing its use around the city.
I’m talking about defensive urban design, also known as
defensive or hostile architecture.
It’s used to guide behaviour in
urban space by designing out
specified uses of street furniture or
the built environment as a form of
crime prevention or protection of
property. In Toronto, its use seems
benevolent in the form of centre
armrests on benches, specially designed ledges with
varying angles to prevent skateboarding and lying
down, and surveillance cameras that keep a watchful
eye on the city.
Defensive urban design guides behaviour both
physically and psychologically.
“When you’re designed against, you know it,” explains
Ocean Howell, a former professional skateboarder and
assistant professor of architectural history at the
University of Oregon. “Other people might not see it,
but you will. The message is clear: you are not a
member of the public, at least not of the public that is
welcome here.” (Omidi, 2014)
Homeless residents in Toronto also know the purpose
of the centre bar on public benches, the kind that are
installed with public funds around the city. During my
research on the topic, I interviewed a nurse who works
with people who are homeless or under-housed and
asked if her clients ever talk to her about the benches
with the centre bar.
“All the time. They ask why, and why are they doing
that? Sometimes that’s the only place people can rest so
people are forced to sleep sitting up,” she responded.
Much of my research focused on the history and use
of benches with centre armrests in Toronto as a
practical method to prevent people from lying down on
them. Not all new benches downtown have a centre bar
and some old benches have bars bolted on years later.
So who is in charge of making decisions regarding their
location and use?
Unfortunately, I could not locate any information in
the city’s urban design guidelines, Parks Plan 2013-
2017, streetscape manual, accessibility design guidelines,
or official plan documents. Given that the use of the
centre bar on benches is arbitrary in application, it is
troublesome that there are no municipal policies or
guidelines that govern its use.
Indeed, while looking at the websites of street
furniture manufacturers I discovered that the choice as
to whether to order benches with a centre bar is as
simple and uncontroversial as picking out the style and
Defensive urban design is a component of the design
philosophy Crime Prevention through Environmental
Design, which evolved from Oscar Newman’s 1973 work
Defensible Space. This philosophy is based on the idea
that the built environment can be designed in a way that
prevents crime as well as the perception of crime.
Influenced by Jane Jacobs’ work on natural surveillance
(eyes on the street) and territoriality, CPTED is built
upon three strategies—natural access control, natural
surveillance and territorial reinforcement.
While many aspects of CPTED seem to be beneficial,
especially the idea of natural surveillance or “eyes on the
street” where the presence of people and the knowledge
of being watched creates the perception of safety, it also
promotes design features that removes eyes in public
spaces for fear of loiterers or so called undesirables.
Thus, a tension is revealed where CPTED practices
encourage the removal of amenities from public space
as a way to curtail undesirable activity but the removal
of amenities make places less attractive to visit, leading
to fewer users and eyes in public spaces.
Fortunately, the City of Toronto recognizes the
importance of creating social gathering spaces and
activating public spaces with programming. It has
increased the supply and maintenance of amenities like
seating, washrooms, children’s playgrounds, and
off-leash areas. These amenities draw people into the
spaces, making it safer for everyone.
In order to design and plan a truly inclusive and
diverse city we must not shy away from difference and
conflict in our public spaces. Using design as a
technological solution to address social issues like
By Cara Chellew
Nathan Philips Square, Queen St. West and Bay St.
IMAGES COURTESY CARA CHELLEW
Vol. 31, No. 5, 2016
substance use, mental illness and homelessness merely
displaces the problem rather than confronting it.
Rather than installing benches with centre bars,
investments should be made in outreach services and
programs such as the Parks Ambassador Program that
works to connect homeless individuals in parks to
shelters and other services.
When paranoia over undesired uses of public
amenities dominates the planning and design process,
we are left with mediocre public spaces that are
inviting but not too inviting and with seating that’s
visually appealing and comfortable, but you wouldn’t
want to sit on for more than 10 minutes. So what are
planning and design professionals to do?
To design flexible public spaces that can
accommodate a large number of people,
municipalities must recognize that the use of
defensive design elements can interfere with the
public’s enjoyment of amenities. For example, a centre
bar on a bench limits its use to two people of average
size, while benches without it can accommodate three
or four people comfortably. The centre bar also limits
who can use the bench. People with different abilities
may not be able to comfortably fit in between the
bars, potentially conflicting with standards set by the
Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. In the
case of design elements meant to deter skateboarders,
people have to be careful not to trip over or accidently
sit on metal protrusions embedded in ledges and
Municipalities must develop guidelines governing
the use of defensive urban designs as a means to
increase accountability and to ensure the decision-
making process is fair and transparent. They should
spark a dialogue with people underrepresented in our
current public consultation processes, such as those
who are homeless or under-housed, to ensure our most
marginalized community members have a voice in the
planning and design process.
“It really comes down to having a conversation with
different user groups, not just defaulting to a design
solution where you put anti-skateboarding things on
the side of something or the third rail on the bench. ...
Then nobody has to talk about conflicts in public
space. Nobody has to confront anyone else about
anything. It’s much healthier to have those
conversations, which are difficult, and come up with
better and more innovative solutions. That makes
better communities too because then we’re talking to
people that we may not ordinarily have [talked to]
before and understand where they’re coming from,”
said Park People policy and research manager Jake
After all, to paraphrase renowned geographer David
Harvey, the type of city we create is reflective of the
type of people we want to be.
Ontario St. and
Right: Bloor and
Yonge, outside of
the Hudson Bay
ONTARIO PLANNING JOURNAL
Cara Chellew is an MES planning candidate in the Faculty
of Environmental Studies at York University. Her research
interests include the regulation and design of public space.
Thank you to Roger Keil and Antonio Gomez-Palacio for
reviewing a draft of this article. Twitter: @CaraChellew.
Crowe, T. (2000). Crime Prevention through Environmental
Design. Boston: Butterworth- Heinemann.
Harvey, D. (2008). “The Right to the City”. New Left Review,
Newman, O. (1973). Defensible Space: Crime Prevention
Through Urban Design. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Omidi, M. (2014, June 12). Anti-homeless spikes are just the
latest in ‘defensive urban architecture’ . Retrieved from The
RCMP. (2016, February 18). Creating Safer Communities: An
introduction to Crime Prevention Through Environmental
Design (CPTED) for architects, planners, and builders.
Retrieved from RCMP Community, Contract and Aboriginal
Toronto Parks, Forestry, & Recreation. (2016, July 06). Parks Plan
2013-2017. Retrieved from Toronto.ca:
As a kid I would tear through packs of double-A
batteries playing the original Pokémon
Gameboy games. Unsurprisingly, the release of
Pokémon GO has been special for me, but only partly
because it satisfies my nostalgia. What is most exciting
to me about its release is its ability to draw crowds of
people into the public spaces of cities. Pokémon GO is
an inventive app that makes use of the camera and GPS
utilities of smartphones to superimpose animations onto
the real world as seen through
As Pokémon GO is location-
based and rewards users for
walking, the game has done a
pretty good job of getting people
onto the street and contributing to
the vibrancy of their
neighbourhoods. I have seen
people enjoy parks and trails as a direct result of this
game and it excites me to imagine how future digital
applications can be used to influence physical space.
At the same time, I am also cognizant of the ever-
shrinking life spans of new technology. As of this
writing, Pokémon GO has been available for a little over
a month and I am already starting to grow tired of it.
Consequently, I am not looking to Pokémon GO and
the later technologies that it will inspire to directly
prescribe the programs and designs of future physical
spaces. New technology will likely be picked up and put
down faster than we can build infrastructure. However,
designers do need to consider an expanded definition of
the public realm, as the line between physical and digital
Kyle Gatchalian is an intern landscape architect at
DIALOG in Toronto.
Lessons Learned from Pokémon GO
By Kyle Gatchalian
Physical and digital spaces blur
IMAGE COURTESY KYLE GATCHALIAN