Separation of church and street

Central Baptist Church has walled off a covered area outside its entrance and installed a spiked fence and locked gate. It’s getting a lot of well-deserved attention as a highly visible example of defensive architecture, but it’s far from the only one in Victoria.

Central Baptist Church and Wall, Victoria, B.C.

Central Baptist Church and Wall, Victoria, B.C.

The area behind the new wall, sheltered from the rain, was used as a gathering and sleeping place by some Victorians. The Times Colonist editorial board defended the wall and pointed out that Our Place, which is just down the street, and “which [is] specifically to deal with people in need, [also] has a fence and a gate and locks on its doors.” Focusing on the church’s wall was unfair, they suggested, when even service providers fence off their turf. 

What they didn't mention is that Our Place had to build a fence in order to exist. According to the B.C. government, “the city … wanted the design [of Our Place] to include an internal courtyard to stop people from gathering outside.” The courtyard was to “be gated at night to promote the safety and security of neighbours.” It’s not an optional spiked fence that Our Place dreamed up on the back of a napkin; it’s a spiked fence mandated by two levels of government.

In order to keep homeless and visibly poor Victorians moving, governments, businesses, and individuals have supported defensive architecture as part of the city’s landscape. Lights, metal bars, gates, and planters (with spikes and without) prevent sitting and sleeping in alcoves. Rocks and art installations fill space that could be used for gathering or sleeping. Spikes keep people from sitting on window ledges.

Down the street from the church’s new wall, one business has surrounded its garden of spiky plants with a metal fence, to be doubly sure no one will take a seat. Right next door, rocks, planters, and bushes have been added to the sidewalk to keep people from using the space. Multiple non-profits and businesses along Pandora use metal bars to keep people from sitting down in alcoves. One parking lot has fenced off a common area to keep people out, and bolted metal strips and bars to any ledge where someone could sit down. Another building has signs that say anyone loitering, soliciting, or camping next to the building is trespassing. In case the threat of arrest isn’t enough, they also have rocks, surveillance cameras, and lighting to discourage all of the above.

Defensive architecture is everywhere in Victoria. It’s not just the church. And it’s not just Our Place. I will use this blog to highlight examples of how the city has been built, bit by bit, to limit the use of public space by Victorians.

Stephen Harrison