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  • Jenna Rosenstein

The Unwelcoming Bench: Understanding Hostile Architecture’s Potential Legal Issues

            On January 12, 2024, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson to resolve the issue of whether an Oregon city’s regulation on public camping constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment.[1]  The City of Grants Pass enacted three different ordinances that “prohibit sleeping on public sidewalks or streets and camping on streets, parks, or other publicly owned property.”[2]  If violated, the offender is “subject to civil citations and can be barred from entering a city park for 30 days.”[3]  The challengers, three unhoused city residents, sought to block the city from enforcing these ordinances, arguing that it punished them and “all involuntarily homeless individuals” for “resting, sleeping and seeking shelter from the elements in Grants Pass.”[4]

The Supreme Court’s eventual decision in this case may affect how other cities decide to address issues relating to the unhoused in their own communities.[5] In particular, the legal scrutiny of regulations targeting unhoused individuals illuminates the broader context of hostile architecture. Hostile architecture, as seen in measures like benches designed to prevent sleeping or spikes placed on surfaces to deter loitering, represents a tangible manifestation of the societal response to houselessness.[6]  These defensive design strategies physically exclude and marginalize unhoused individuals from public spaces as well as raise ethical questions about the treatment of vulnerable populations.[7]

The debate surrounding hostile architecture raises important questions about individual rights and the use of public spaces.[8]  Broadly speaking, while proponents argue that property owners should have the right to protect their spaces, opponents contend that everyone should have an absolute right to access and utilize public areas.[9]  This conflict underscores the tension between private property rights and the broader social responsibility to ensure inclusivity and accessibility in urban spaces.[10]

Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the unhoused individuals challenging the city regulations, it could signal a shift towards more humane and pragmatic solutions to homelessness, encouraging cities to invest in supportive housing, mental health services, and other forms of assistance rather than resorting to punitive measures.[11]  Conversely, a decision upholding the regulation could embolden other cities to adopt similar laws, exacerbating the criminalization of houselessness and further marginalizing vulnerable populations.[12] 

As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of city regulations affecting the unhoused, it stands to initiate a profound examination of the foundational principles that underpin urban design and policy. This process compels cities to confront not only the legal aspects of houselessness but also the moral and ethical dimensions inherent in their approaches. The manner in which cities opt to address the unhoused community arguably serves as a reflection of broader societal values and priorities, highlighting the intricate interplay between social responsibility, compassion, and governance. Consequently, the Court’s decision in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson holds the potential to transcend its immediate legal implications and become a pivotal moment in reshaping the urban landscape and redefining the collective commitment to address houselessness. Moreover, by scrutinizing the legality and ethics of city ordinances, this case prompts a broader conversation about the role of hostile architecture in urban environments.[13]

While the Supreme Court navigates through the concrete controversies of ordinances targeting the unhoused, the intricate web of hostile urban design unravels before us.  City of Grants Pass v. Johnson offers a promising opportunity to chart a new course—one that leads us away from the maze of exclusions and toward a reality where every individual finds solace and dignity amidst concrete jungles.



[1] City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, SCOTUSʙʟᴏɢ, https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/city-of-grants-pass-oregon-v-johnson/; Amy Howe, Justices Take Up Camping Ban Case, SCOTUSʙʟᴏɢ (Jan. 12, 2023), https://www.scotusblog.com/2024/01/justices-take-up-camping-ban-case/.

[2] Melissa Quinn, Supreme Court to Decide Whether Cities Can Punish Homeless Residents for Sleeping on Public Property, CBS Nᴇᴡs (Jan. 12, 2024, 12:01 PM PST), https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/supreme-court-will-decide-whether-local-anti-homeless-laws-are-cruel-and-unusual/.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See Amy Howe, Justices Take Up Camping Ban Case, SCOTUSʙʟᴏɢ (Jan. 12, 2023), https://www.scotusblog.com/2024/01/justices-take-up-camping-ban-case/.

[6] Understanding Hostile Architecture: The Cause and Effect of Restricting Public Space, Tʜᴇ Nᴇɪɢʜʙᴏʀʜᴏᴏᴅ Dᴇsɪɢɴ Cᴛʀ. (Oct. 2, 2023), https://ndc-md.org/news-and-stories/understanding-hostile-architecture-the-cause-and-effect-of-restricting. “Hostile architecture, also known as defensive architecture or exclusionary design, is an urban design strategy in which public spaces and structures are used to prevent certain activities or restrict certain people from using those space.” Id.

[7] Id.  

[8] Karl Persson de Fine Licht, Hostile Urban Architecture: A Critical Discussion of the Seemingly Offensive Art of Keeping People Away, 11 Eᴛɪᴋᴋ I Pʀᴀᴋsɪs - Nᴏʀᴅɪᴄ J. Aᴘᴘʟɪᴇᴅ Eᴛʜɪᴄs 27, 35-38. (2017).

[9] Id.

[10] See Manaswi Saha, Devanshi Chauhan, Siddhant Patil, Rachel Kangas, Jeffery Heer & Jon E. Froehlich, Urban Accessibility as Socio-Political Problem: A Multi Stakeholder Analysis, 4 ACM Tʀᴀɴs. Gʀᴀᴘʜ. 39:1, 39:16 (2020).

[11] See e.g., Janey Rountree, Nathan Hess & Austin Lyke, Health Conditions Among Unsheltered Adults in the U.S., Cᴀʟɪғᴏʀɴɪᴀ Pᴏʟ'ʏ Lᴀʙ (Oct. 6, 2019), https://www.capolicylab.org/health-conditions-among-unsheltered-adults-in-the-u-s/ (“Unsheltered adults are far more likely to report suffering from chronic health conditions, mental health issues, and experiences with trauma and substance abuse problems as compared to homeless people who are living in shelters.”); Chronically Homeless, Nᴀᴛ’ʟ Aʟʟ. ᴛᴏ Eɴᴅ Hᴏᴍᴇʟᴇssɴᴇss, https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/who-experiences-homelessness/chronically-homeless/ (noting that “[n]early 65 percent of chronically homeless individuals were living on the street, in a car, park, or other location not meant for human habitation”).

[12] See Quinn, supra at note 2 (Top officials from other states, such as California and Arizona, asked the Supreme Court to accept the case and resolve the issue. San Francisco, for example, argued against being restricted “from enforcing its laws that preserve public spaces for the use by all City residents.”).

[13] See, e.g., discussion supra at notes 6, 11.

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