A local neighborhood council may call for the removal of nontransit bench dividers in Westwood Village, following a transportation and safety committee vote Jan. 14.
The committee, which is a part of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, recommended the Westwood Village Improvement Association, Westwood’s business improvement district, remove the dividers. Benches with dividers or spikes on sidewalks are examples of hostile or defensive architecture design that deters people from resting or loitering in public spaces or property.
Many benches in Westwood have dividers that can prevent people experiencing homelessness from lying down. These designs may go unnoticed by pedestrians who, for instance, may construe bench dividers as armrests.
With two yeas and two abstentions, the discussion on hostile architecture moved up to the full NWWNC, which may issue a resolution in line with the committee recommendation at its next meeting Feb. 5. The dilemma for the council lies in balancing the safety of the neighborhood while upholding the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
Andrew Lewis, an organization stakeholder council member, said the council should consider how hostile architecture may affect fellow community members.
“People experiencing homelessness are our community members, and insofar, there are no other places for them to go,” Lewis said. “Hostile architecture can greatly impact their quality of life.”
Abdallah Daboussi, a NWWNC transportation committee member and senior administrative planning and policy analyst at UCLA Transportation, said although he disagrees with hostile architecture, he would be reserved to support anything that reduces the stability of transit ridership.
“The whole transit is an experience,” Daboussi said. “If someone feels like their safety or sanitation is at risk, they won’t take transit.”
The committee decided to focus the discussion on non-bus-stop benches because of the debate between hostile architecture and the issue of transit ridership.
There are two types of benches in Westwood: ones that are city-wide and ones that are district-specific, according to Andrew Thomas, executive director of WVIA. Both are blue in color and some feature dividers. Thomas said the city benches are supplied by JCDecaux, an outdoor advertising corporation, in partnership with the city of Los Angeles. The district benches are supplied by WVIA, Thomas added.
NWWNC’s specification on WVIA’s involvement excludes city benches and focuses on district benches with dividers.
Thomas said in an emailed statement that the board has yet to take a position regarding the NWWNC recommendation, but there is potential for discussion if the NWNNC decides to do so.
“The dividers have many functions,” Thomas said. “Benches are intended for all of our users to sit and enjoy. … I think where it gets interesting is when benches are privatized; when one individual is there all the time and it becomes a bench that belongs to one person.”
Though the discussion is shaping around district benches, most other benches with the dividers in Westwood provided by JCDecaux may still be a matter of concern.
Hostile architecture or defensive design is a form of “soft control,” or a subtle type of regulation, said urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. Groups in power use such design to influence and restrict the behavior of people in public spaces, Loukaitou-Sideris added.
In her research on the privatization of public spaces, Loukaitou-Sideris said she described the phenomenon as a “physical representation of neoliberalism.”
The private sector is often given incentives by planning departments such as authorizations for taller buildings in return for public plazas. Certain groups deemed “bad for business” by the private sector are kept away because these public spaces are developed with profit as a goal and consumers as their market, she said.
This type of agreement is called incentive zoning, which started in the 1960s and developed throughout the ’70s and ’80s, eventually handing the upper hand of soft control to private developers, Loukaitou-Sideris said.
“The public plazas they provided in return for development incentives were supposed to be open to the public but they began to employ regulations and design to keep certain groups away,” Loukaitou-Sideris said.
Under the Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.18, it is a criminal offense for any person to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.”
In 2018, the Martin v. Boise ruling in the United States 9th Circuit, the largest court of appeals, made it unconstitutional to criminally punish people experiencing homelessness for sleeping on public property in the absence of adequate shelter beds as an alternative. The Supreme Court rejected a petition to review the case so it remained binding in the 9th Circuit, which includes the state of California.
The city and county of Los Angeles, along with several municipal governments, filed amicus briefs to overturn the Martin v. Boise ruling.
Loukaitou-Sideris said she thinks public spaces should be democratic despite how some people may feel when encountering individuals experiencing homelessness.
“In my view, public space epitomizes democracy,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “Public space should be a common ground, and unless you exhibit criminal or disruptive behavior that may pose a threat to others, you should be allowed to be present on public spaces.”
Certain groups such as those experiencing homelessness are often excluded or criminalized because of their misfortune, she said.
“Instead of accommodating for these people and resolving their issues by building adequate housing, for instance, (the local governments) are implementing an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy,” Loukaitou-Sideris said.