My Year of Stress and Dehydration: How the Pandemic Made Hostile Design Visible to the Middle Class

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels.

Throughout the last year of anxiety and COVID restrictions, many of us have sought refuge in outdoor spaces. We have headed outside for exercise, socialising, even just a change of scenery. With our worlds largely shrunk to our nearest five kilometres, we have walked cumulative marathons around our nearby parks, greens, and fields. And on these excursions, we have learned not to drink too much, because we now recognise how few public toilets are available.

This is no accident; rather, many who design cities consider it a feature. Without the option of heading into a shop, cafe, or hotel to use the facilities, many people who heretofore would not have had to consider their relationship to the toilet have realised what we have been privileged to take for granted: our basic bodily needs have been handed over to the private market, in prime neoliberal fashion. As lack of access to toilets is a problem that disproportionally affects women and trans men, sales of aids like Go Girl and Shewee are up. But fixes like these are bandaids over a systemic problem: hostile design and the privatisation of public space.

Photo by Laura James from Pexels.

Vassar College’s Barry Lam explored the idea of hostile design, sometimes referred to as defensive architecture, and its philosophical underpinnings in an episode of his excellent podcast Hi-Phi Nation. Hostile design refers to architectural or design elements that deter people from behaving in a certain way within a given space. This can mean anything from coloured lighting in bathrooms that make them less hospitable to drug users, to metal balls protruding from railings to deter skateboarders from using them for tricks. This is not a new idea, but it has been getting particularly aggressive: elements like spikes in front of doorways and metal bars across benches deter people from getting too comfortable and loitering in public spaces.

In the episode, philosopher Richard Rowland of the Australian Catholic University described the fundamental issue informing defensive architecture as one of access: “[C]ertain citizens who are also entitled to use the streets often feel excluded, uncomfortable, or threatened in public spaces due to the presence of others.” This primarily breaks down along class lines, but it can also affect those who are differently abled or non-binary.

Roland Atkinson of the University of Sheffield defined defensive architecture as “about who has a right to the city and on what terms … the use of design technologies and forms of architecture which are about excluding particular groups and populations”—most commonly, the homeless:

“We’ve seen increasing securitisation, and a lot of that it’s also pushed by the insurance industry who want to ensure that the places are safe, that they’re not in any sense a risk in insurance terms, and all of those interests kind of combine in what we call the privatisation of public space.”

Roland Atkinson
Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels.

Lam goes further: in philosophical terms, design, he says, is teleological—it focuses on attaining a specific end result. And in the eyes of the private, capitalist interests designing our cities, the only two productive end results for human behaviour are work and shopping. This is why our public spaces are not amenable to situations where people are neither working nor consuming. This also means, Lam continues, that our pets have more public rights than we do:

If I walked my dog in New York City, she could go almost everywhere she chose. If I needed to use the toilet, I’d need to purchase something from a business or I’d have to get their explicit permission, which you almost never get. … A city that employs hostile design makes it so that the freedom to sleep, wash, and use the toilet must always be purchased.

Barry Lam

Essentially, during lockdown, with so many private enterprises closed, the problem of hostile design has presented itself to the middle classes who had previously been shielded from it by their purchasing power. Although Dublin City Council has sought to address this by setting up portaloos in two city centre locations, most of what we consider Dublin is a conurbation of villages and suburbs, and a look on Pee.ie shows that my nearest public toilet is almost three kilometres away.

At the start of this pandemic, I heard someone joke that the year would be like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, wherein a young woman drugs herself into sleeping the bulk of the year away. Instead, I have found this to be a year of stress and dehydration. I used to drink a good three litres of water a day. This was when I worked in an office, and my hourly refill at the water cooler was as much an excuse to stretch my legs as to ensure I’d had my daily fluids. Now, working from home, I’ll drink maybe a litre, because I know I’ll have to take my baby for a midday walk and don’t want to get stuck somewhere, desperate and uncomfortable. But like so many things, the lack of public toilets is a personal health issue directly stemming from our cities’ refusal to prioritise their people over lobbyists and business interests.

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