Un-sleepable benches

One of the most ubiquitous examples of defensive or hostile architecture in downtown Victoria is the un-sleepable bench, which is intended to decrease visible homelessness in the downtown core. 

According to a thesis on defensive architecture in Victoria by John Koenig, Victoria’s Douglas Street benches were installed with “strategically placed arm-rests … to deter lounging or sleeping” and to “regulate the presence of homelessness” (p. 154; 151). A Times Colonist article cited by Koenig says the design was “a gentle reminder that sitting, not lounging is preferred.” The article also noted that the city removed a bench at Yates and Government in 1993 that had been “frequented by street people.” One year later, Yates Street businesses “called benches and planters ‘crime generators’ and requested they be removed.”

Benches aren’t likely to be anyone’s first choice for a bed, but barred armrests stop anyone from even trying to use the benches as a place to sleep off the ground. Benches in Douglas Street bus shelters, which might otherwise provide dry sleeping locations, also include barred armrests. The Hamilton Spectator reports that “Manufacturers that sell public seating with centre arm rests sometimes call them ‘anti-vagrant benches.’” Whether or not homeless Victorians would choose to sleep on the Douglas Street benches, the armrests are designed to remove that choice.

Victoria’s un-sleepable benches are supposed to go unnoticed, but they haven’t. They easily made it into a collection of international examples of defensive architecture. (Note: photo captions contain stigmatizing language, i.e., use of the word “bum” to describe homeless people).

The Douglas Street benches were installed in 1999, but this style of hostile design isn’t going away any time soon. Concept images for the forthcoming Douglas and Pandora office buildings and plaza show benches with armrests or gaps “to provide opportunities for seating and pause.” Nothing more than a seat and nothing longer than a pause, mind you.

These are exciting times for the un-sleepable bench, which is also sprouting progressive elements to mask its anti-poor roots. Just around the corner from the benches above, the new development will include benches with bike racks that double as armrests. These benches were likely designed to evoke the idea that Victoria is a progressive city that encourages greener transportation choices (even our benches are bike racks!), but they are no different from their 18-year-old Douglas Street counterparts. All of these designs make it abundantly clear that they are for certain individuals and certain uses only. 

Computer-generated Victorians enjoy their new armrests. Image source: Submission to Victoria Council.

Lest anyone point out that there’s an unbarred ledge on the planter in the concept image above – a possible sleepable alternative to an un-sleepable bench – the city has agreed that loitering or sleeping in the new “public” plaza is grounds for ejection by the developer (p. 85; 93; 101). The “general public” will have access to these lands at any time of day or night, but apparently Victorians stop being both general and public if they need a public place to sleep.

The overall plan for the new development was met with the “enthusiastic approval” of city council. The un-sleepable bench lives on.

Sources for Douglas Plaza images: Submission to Victoria Council (large file size); Jawl Enterprises presentation to Council

Stephen Harrison