In its latest eye-opening explainer video, Vox lets viewers in on the secret as to why it’s so difficult to find a public comfortable place to sit in New York City, or any major city for that matter. It turns out the rigid, metal benches with too many armrests that pepper urban landscapes aren’t placed there by mistake, and their newest evolutions—the leaning bar or even less intuitive fold-down bench—are just getting closer to the designers’ goal of ultimate discomfort. But, as the video details, the ramifications of these types of seats can be far greater than just a sore backside.
It’s called “defensive design,” and it takes many forms. Whether it’s bird-proofing spikes placed on a building’s overhang or metal notches installed on a concrete ledge to deter skateboarders, defensive design is all about dictating how public space is used. Sometimes, like with security cameras or streetlights, the purpose is to prevent or minimize crime. But, in the case of purposefully uncomfortable benches, the unmentioned target of the design is often the homeless population.
Many homeless people live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, and the population increases every year (this, despite there being more empty homes than homeless people in the U.S.). Rather than seek systemic solutions to the problem or provide adequate shelters, these cities regularly take small steps to make the act of being homeless both uncomfortable and illegal. Without a bench to lie down on, homeless individuals will be forced to move on from these highly trafficked public areas, effectively out of sight and out of mind. As Vox notes, you won’t hear the MTA openly discussing these defensively designed leaning bars because “it makes for an uncomfortable discussion about who we design public space for and who gets left out.”