Bars, barriers and ghost amenities: Defensive urban design in Toronto
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Bars, barriers and ghost amenities: Defensive urban design in Toronto

A new website documents "hostile architecture" from around the city.

Photo courtesy of

Hidden (and not-so-hidden) design features shape how we experience the city. Some of these features are meant to improve accessibility, like the textured yellow line that warns of the edge of subway platforms on the TTC. Others are designed to exclude.

Defensive urban design, also known as hostile or unpleasant architecture, is a collection of design strategies that work to guide behaviour in urban space as a form of crime prevention or property protection. It targets the city’s most vulnerable, often through anti-loitering measures, by making spaces hostile for people that rely on them most. It works to remove targeted populations through the addition or removal of elements that are meant to mediate user behaviour. These “silent agents” eliminate the need for authorities to intervene, but are also permanent, inflexible, and non-negotiable.

The built environment has been used for social and spatial control throughout human history—from moats and guard towers fortifying medieval castles to the introduction of street lights in 17th-century Paris. Its recent forms are influenced by Oscar Newman’s 1972 work Defensible Space, which laid the groundwork for popular design philosophy Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.

CPTED promotes three design principles to reduce real and perceived crime and “disorder” in urban space: natural surveillance, natural access control, and territorial reinforcement. It is often paired with strict policing policies influenced by James Wilson and George Kelling’s broken windows theory, based on the belief “that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” According to this line of thought, if small crimes and signs of disorder are not addressed, more serious crimes will flourish.

Taking Toronto as a starting point, and drawing from hundreds of photographs taken over the past three years, I’ve created a website as an attempt to make visible a phenomenon that’s often hidden in plain sight. is meant to be a resource for activists and policy-makers as well as an introduction to the topic for everyday citizens. It organizes popular forms of defensive urban design under the following categories.

If you spot an example of defensive urban design that we’ve missed, email us and Torontoist will look into it. 


Location: York University subway station

Benches at the new York University subway station include centre bars to keep people from lying down. These bars are spaced fairly close together, making the bench less accessible for people of different body sizes and abilities. The absence of backrests also makes this bench design less accessible, especially for the elderly.


Location: Southeast corner of Yonge and Wellesley

Ledges outfitted with metal protrusions of various shapes and sizes are installed to prevent damage from skateboarders and are used to discourage people from sitting down. The pervasiveness of this design solution is problematic because it can be a hazard to people who are blind or hard of seeing, as well as children.


Location: Southwest corner of Yonge and Davisville.

Surveillance can take the form of on-site security, surveillance cameras, and even robots (spotted recently in San Francisco). The feeling of being watched ensures users of urban space police their own behaviour. Security guards also move along undesired groups of people, like people who are homeless and youth.

Spatial barriers

Location: Mel Lastman Square in North York.

Spatial barriers can be temporary or permanent. A variety of materials are used to delineate space, including fences, ropes, rocks, and shrubs. Seasonal closures, as seen in the photo above, are a relatively new strategy used to reduce operating and maintenance costs of public space. Since these spaces are not maintained, they must be cut off from public use to avoid liability if someone is injured.


Location: Canadian Tire parking garage at Lakeshore and Leslie.

Bright lights are used to increase visibility in public and semi-public spaces, while different coloured lights are used for a number of reasons. Blue lights are installed in some restrooms to make finding a vein difficult for intravenous drug users and pink lights are reportedly used in the U.K. for their calming effect and to amplify the acne (and resulting social discomfort) of loitering youth.


Mosquito Device, photo courtesy of

Sound is also used to discourage loitering youth. For example, classical music is played from the overhead speakers in some TTC stations because it is thought to repel gangs. Last March, The Mosquito, a device that emits an unpleasant sound at a frequency only young people could hear, was spotted in McGill Parkette, close to Yonge and Gerrard. It was removed after its use made media headlines.

Ghost amenities


Location: Yonge and Dundas Square

The lack of amenities like washrooms, water fountains, and picnic tables in public spaces creates a hostile cityscape, particularly for people who are elderly or have a disability. The disrepair and removal of some amenities is also linked to neoliberal policies which favour spending reductions over the provision of public goods. The noticeable lack of street furniture in Toronto prompted a response by a group of activists under the banner of #SitTO to advocate for more public seating in the city.