How Montreal’s public spaces are designed to police themselves

Kate Addison, News Editor

Hostile architecture, also known as exclusionary or defensive design, is an intrinsic component of Montreal’s urban spaces—you just may not have noticed it. For most people who call this city home, experiencing urban public spaces is risk-free and innocuous, be it riding on the metro, sitting in the park, or simply walking down the street. This comfort, however, is not the reality for all. For the over 3,000 unhoused residents of Montreal, urban public spaces are exclusionary and dangerous.

Whatever you may call it, exclusionary design exists throughout Montreal. Exclusionary design may be blatantly obvious or more discreet, controlling how we move through and interact with the urban landscape. Seemingly innocuous are, for example, the blue lights that illuminate the interior of Montreal’s public busses. While often unnoticed, this cool-toned lighting makes it more difficult for intravenous drug users to locate a vein, thus deterring drug use on public transportation by those without a more private alternative. More noticeable, however, are the benches found at metro stations or in parks that encourage brief and orderly use through shallow seats and dividing armrests. It is through these design elements that the public is told in no uncertain terms: Don’t get comfortable.

While the effects of exclusionary design may be non-consequential or even beneficial to those with secure housing, these design choices are actively harmful to those without a private space to call home. Hannah Brais is the research coordinator for Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission and a graduate of Concordia University with an undergraduate degree in urban planning and a Master’s of Science in Geography, Urban and Environmental studies. Brais explained the impact of exclusion from the public sphere on the psyche of Montreal’s unhoused population.

“As a homeless person, [...] you're constantly restricted from spaces, and having architecture or design that is [intended] outright to not welcome you is just a reminder of how the rest of society and space treats you,” Brais said. “For a lot of homeless people, [exclusionary design] is an embodiment of just exactly the social exclusion that they already live [....] It's just another clear instance where somebody's saying, ‘No, you don't belong here.’”

The concept of exclusionary design emerged through ‘the broken window theory,’ a criminology thesis published in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. McGill professor of Sociology Jan Doering explained the controversy behind the broken window theory.

“The [broken window] theory argues that serious crime emerges out of small crimes and even [from] things that are not criminal in and of themselves, but that may be perceived as disorder,” Doering said. “These things are sometimes called quality of life issues. It could be things like public urination, or graffiti or littering, and the argument that [Wilson and Kelling] made is that when people see these things occur in a particular public space, they believe that there’s no one taking care of this space [...] it’s not managed, it’s not surveilled.”

As a result of these signs of supposed social disorder or “broken windows on a building”—the imagery for which this theory is named—Wilson and Kelling argued people would feel more comfortable committing crimes as their so-called “disorder” would be more likely to go unnoticed.

“[A perceived lack of surveillance] might invite people to consider committing crimes because they wouldn’t be at risk of being apprehended, and so there’s this negative spiral that these scholars expect,” Doering said. “[In this theoretical spiral] small things facilitate more serious [crimes] up to things like homicides, gang presence, shootings, and robbery.”

Like many North American cities, Montreal seems to have internalized the broken window theory, controlling citizens’ actions in public spaces through exclusionary design. For many, the presence of unhoused people in public areas is regarded as a symbol of disorder, and is thus seen as conducive to criminal activity. Unhoused people are in fact, less likely to commit violent crimes and are far more at risk of victimization than those with shelter. However, according to a study on disorder and public spaces in Montreal, by 2008, the problem of the “occupation of urban space” was a challenge heavily prioritized by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). To handle this issue, the study states that the SPVM relied heavily on urban planning changes to aid in preventing this type of public disorder.

During the 1990s, the City of Montreal began to implement changes to public spaces to more effectively control their use. In addition to changing many urban areas such as the former Berri Square into parks—as bylaws allowed for the enforcement of curfews on those occupying parks—the city closed off many other public spaces by constructing walls and fences.

In 2008, the mayor of Ville-Marie Borough, Benoît Labonté, announced the installation of a new style of park bench trisected by metal armrests in his neighbourhood. This bench was lauded for its innovative design allowing upright seating while preventing unhoused people from using it as a makeshift bed.

Cara Chellew is a public space researcher and advocate located in Toronto. She has gained attention for her project defensiveTO, which maps instances of hostile design found in urban areas. Chellew noted in an interview with The McGill Tribune that in recent years, defensive architecture has become the status quo in North American cities.

“It seems like defensive architecture has been embraced as a best practice amongst the design community, it gets put into these new public spaces before any [...] conflict happens,” Chellew said. “[Before] defensive architecture [...] a bench would be removed because neighbors didn’t want people loitering. [...] But now we see these [designs] put in place before there's any sort of conflict in the use of space.”

Like controversial policing tactics such as ‘stop and frisk’ and foot patrols, exclusionary design directly results from the belief that signs of disorder must be prevented from ever occurring to halt a neighbourhood’s descent into serious criminal activity. These notions, which define modern policing, have been widely criticized for being both inaccurate and racist. Contemporary urban planning scholars argue that it is discriminatory towards low-income and minority neighbourhoods that may not receive the same public or private services as more affluent areas.

“By and large, I would say that the evidence does not support the argument [made by the broken window theory],” Doering said. “There’s some evidence that robbery might be encouraged by [public] disorder, [however] these are results from individual studies. Most people who’ve looked at the theory and tested it empirically have not really found much to support it. It’s not one of the more successful explanations of crime.”

The executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Nakuset, is an advocate for creating more inclusionary public spaces. In July, she successfully brought attention to the installation of benches with armrests and time limits in Cabot square, an area frequented by many unhoused people. Nakuset explained to The Tribune how the existence of exclusionary design is noticeably more prevalent in Montreal’s lower socio-economic neighbourhoods.

“Around Cabot square [there are] benches that have the bars in between [seats], so you can't lie down,” Nakuset said.“They [also] have them inside the Atwater Metro. Even the seats are designed like that as well as at Guy[- Concordia station]. But afterward, once you get to Peel and McGill, you don't see [those benches] anymore. [Exclusionary design is only] in certain areas [where] there is a large homeless population.”

The act of violence committed against unhoused people by exclusionary architecture in Montreal, as with all of Canada, is an issue not merely of class but also of race. As a direct result of centuries of colonial violence perpetrated by the Canadian state, Indigenous peoples make up only about five per cent of the Canadian population. Yet, they are over-represented in urban unhoused statistics, with some estimates stating that one 1 in 15 urban Indigenous people are unhoused. The displacement of a largely Indigenous portion of the population through urban design demonstrates the active role that colonialism continues to play in Canada.

“[This type of design] is an issue and it needs to be corrected, you can't just keep displacing Indigenous people,” Nakuset said. “[The government] has been doing it since settlers arrived on the boat, but at some point, it needs to stop. Cabot Square [and Montreal] are going to continue to have an Indigenous population, so the city needs to change their ways.”

It is thus apparent that the goal of exclusionary design is not to prevent disorder, but rather to ensure that affluent members of society are not subjected to interacting with it. Through design elements, specific city spaces possess the capacity to police themselves, making the mere act of occupying public space criminal and dangerous.

Further, exclusionary design has been a particular detriment to unhoused people in Montreal during the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health restrictions have limited the number of spaces shelters can offer as an alternative to sleeping on the street.

“Through the COVID experience, the homeless population hasn't had enough spaces to rest, [and] pre-COVID there were a lot more beds available,” Nakuset said. “[Because of COVID-19], you can only have 60 per cent of the [former shelter capacity], and so now there's no spaces for [everyone] to sleep.”

While the city has attempted to remedy this issue through the allocation of new spaces for shelter, safe places to rest in Montreal are still hard to find. This issue is only exacerbated by the recent privatization of the Royal Victoria Hospital, which has been used as a shelter during the pandemic. Between inadequate shelter space and continued use of exclusionary design, COVID-19 has revealed not only the city’s disregard, but its active contempt, for the most vulnerable of its residents.

“The pandemic is only highlighting and exacerbating what was a constant living expression of homelessness in the city,” Brais said. “I think [that] access to public spaces is even more important as [this pandemic] is highlighting what so many people already live. How do we talk about social distancing? How do we talk about staying inside for somebody who doesn't have an inside?”

Exclusionary design is not a solution to crime in Montreal, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it is an attempt by municipal governments, businesses, and police to push those who are suffering out of the public eye.

“If you're on the streets, something humongous [that is] traumatic has happened to you,” Nakuset said. “You can't understand how difficult it is to be on the streets and to be looked down on. People don't acknowledge you [if you’re homeless], or if they do most of the time, it's in a really disrespectful manner. It's really hard for [the homeless] to receive that kind of rejection from the masses all day and all night long.”

Mayor Valerie Plante’s office was contacted to comment on the city’s defensive design problem but did not respond as of publishing.