The Inclusive City: On Homelessness and Urban Design

In the summertime, I’m an early morning runner. As I pass through the streets, the city is still and quiet, making any activity stand out. One recent Saturday morning was oppressively hot. Passing through Ezio Farone Park the first time, I spotted a man sleeping on the park bench. An hour later, I made a loop back through the same spot. The man sleeping on the bench had moved too, 10 feet from the bench, now sleeping underneath a small bush, where he could escape from the run.

While walking to work, I pass a convenience store where most days, an elderly bearded man sits on a bench next to a shopping cart of belongings. I nod and say hi, and he reciprocates.

I notice these interactions ever since I started working in the housing and homelessness sector. I once took a vacation to Portland to combat burnout at work, only to find myself obsessed about the street homelessness you see everywhere in the city’s core. Similarly, while I seek to clear my head when out running, I’m always snapped back to reality by signs of homelessness or otherwise marginalized individuals.

My community has made great strides towards ending homelessness in a short period of time. As I think about the people I come across, I wonder if public spaces and urban design, among other things, can play a greater role in making this happen faster and more effectively.

You can hardly open a paper (or an iPad in my case) without seeing a case study of what not to do. While there are good news stories like Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights, and Denver’s efforts to use transit to connect affordable housing to jobs, good schools, and quality services, the bad can seem to outweigh the good. A restaurant owner in Montreal wants to chase homeless youth from the area (where will they go that is safe and appropriate, one might wonder?) Seattle debates whether to make a homeless encampment permanent (as if to say, this is the best we’ll ever do for you). A city in Florida removed all the benches in a park to discourage homeless people from gathering (can they not co-exist with others?), and other cities have installed benches with arm-rests in the middle or that are u-shaped, in order to discourage sleeping on them.

It’s becoming more common to talk about designing cities in a manner that promotes better public health, for one, which I strongly support. But I think we also need to talk about designing better for inclusivity, especially for the most marginalized among us.

Most important in this is talking about how we design not just to serve marginalized people, but to support changing their circumstances for the better.

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