When Parisian benches have politics: Street furniture and strategies of spatial exclusion

Aurelien Bouayad | 26 March 2014 | Respond
Spikes in front of doors are among a number of architectural street strategies used to deter homeless people. (copyright by Survival Group)

Spikes in doorways are among a number of architectural street strategies used to deter homeless people.         (copyright by Survival Group)

Haussmannian façades and art nouveau Metro entrances are what usually come to mind when one thinks of Parisian architecture, but the French capital has recently embarked on a new anti-homeless architectural trend, following the examples of other American and European cities (1). Of course, homeless people have long been the target of spatial segregation: from fencing to restrict access to delimited spaces to the locking of park gates and the installation of secure door entry system to bar entrance to apartment block staircases and communal areas. But beyond these traditional methods, usual elements of urban architecture are being increasingly redesigned to “subtly” deter long-term occupancy. From barrel-shaped benches, to cactuses, pebbles and spikes on ledges and doorways, these material strategies inspired by anti-skateboarder architecture (2) embody the same not-so-avowable objective: excluding homeless people from the use of public space.

In his now canonical—yet still controversial—article “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” Langdon Winner put forward the provocative argument that technical things in themselves have political qualities. Departing from the idea that technologies are neutral and only gain political dimension through the social circumstances of their development, deployment and use, Winner argues that technical devices “embody specific forms of power and authority.” His account of Long Island’s low bridges, designed to limit the access of public transit users—i.e., racial minorities and low-income groups—to the area’s resorts and beaches, reveals how the physical arrangement of urban space can embody political purpose. The notion of “disciplinary architecture” is sometimes used to refer to such methods aimed at shaping behavior through the built environment (3).

The development of anti-homeless street furniture tells a similar story; this time, it is a set of innovations in the design of devices that embody a strategy of spatial segregation against a particularly discriminated social group. This furniture was intentionally designed and installed in order to banish a social category from public spaces—and, consequently, from the sight of their fellow citizens (4). STS stresses the idea that technological developments do not take place outside society, independently of social, economic, and political forces. Here, the installation of these devices tells us something about how France deals with a major political taboo (5): by making it disappear. By materially deterring “long-term occupancy” of park benches and bank frontages, anti-homeless street furniture has a direct impact on the (in)visibility of homelessness. Being physically banned from the Polis, the homeless are out of the sight of politics—more than ever.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of these new benches, spikes and cactuses, is the way in which they very often go unnoticed by the average citizen—thanks to the “subtlety” of their design. In many cases, these installations are overlooked until they are made visible by activist groups.

In 2006, a group of researchers from the European Observatory on Homelessness detailed the deployment of these “deterrence by design” devices across major cities in Europe: “One of the strategies purposefully implemented at Warsaw Central has been the removal of old wooden benches—used by homeless people for resting and sleeping—and their replacement with plastic seats designed to deter such activity. […] Railway station managers are satisfied with the results as the seats are durable, easy to clean and deter long term occupancy by homeless people looking for somewhere to rest” (6). In France, the whistleblowers were members of a collective of photographers, Survival, who started to collect visual proof of these “anti-sites.” After their artistic production was relayed by national media (7), the phenomenon eventually reached collective consciousness and entered public discussion. The photographers’ work resonates with the spectacular actions of the “Sons of Don Quixote” activists who, in 2006, created a protest tent city at Canal St-Martin in north-eastern Paris to bring the issue of homelessness—however briefly—out of obscurity and into public view during the 2007 Presidential campaign.

Hence, the latest deployment of disciplinary architecture in Paris demonstrates once again that we need to pay careful attention to what—and who—is made invisible, for such moves very often hide the exercise of power and authority. Writing about such phenomena, aimed at bringing the dark to light, remains a critically important project for STS.

Keywords: visibility; spatial exclusion; disciplinary architecture; technology studies


  1. The phenomenon, indeed, is not so new. In City of Quartz, his classical study of the city of Los Angeles published in 1990, Mike Davis already noticed how street furniture was increasingly integrated in social segregation schemes.
  2. Skateboarders have indeed been increasingly excluded from the streets by the invention and the quick spread of “skate deterrents“—typically metal brackets that attach to benches or low walls.
  3. The method echoes with the recent controversies over the infamous Mosquito technology, a device used to deter young people loitering by emitting a high frequency sound (see this coverage broadcasted by CNN in 2010).
  4. For a broader illustration of these questions, see T. Gieryn, “What Buildings Do,” Theory and Society, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2002), pp. 35-74.
  5. In July 2013, the French National Institute of Statistics (INSEE) released a report showing that the number of homeless people in France has risen by 50% between 2001 and 2012, despite repeated political commitment of eradicating homelessness.
  6. European Observatory on Homelessness,“Homelessness and Exclusion: Regulating the Public Space,” 2006, p. 9.
  7. Le Monde, “Paris se hérisse contre les SDF,” 31 December 2009.

Further Reading:

  • M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979.
  • L. Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the ReactorA Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 19-39; but see B. Joerges, “Do Politics Have Artefacts?” Social Studies of Science, Vol.29, No. 3 (1999), pp. 411–431.
  • S. Woolgar, “The Turn to Technology in Social Studies of Science,” Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1991), pp. 20-50.

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