Local

‘Hostile architecture’: A group wanted for removing armrests from MBTA benches says they’re helping the homeless

"We demand the removal of ALL hostile architecture & housing to be guaranteed as a human right."

This September 2020 photo shows how some benches on the platforms at Downtown Crossing have benches with armrests intended to help people with disabilities, but upsetting some as seemingly hostile to homeless. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The MBTA Transit Police are looking for four people who allegedly stole armrests from benches at Central Square station in Cambridge.

But others, including a social media account said to represent the people who removed them, say the armrests are a form of “hostile architecture” meant to deter homeless people from using the benches to rest.

Transit police posted photos of four people accused of taking the armrests, asking the public’s help with identifying them. Members of the group in question allegedly removed the bench bars on two occasions – around 3:26 a.m. on Feb. 14 and around 5:54 p.m. on Feb. 22.

Advertisement:

Calling themselves “Shlubs for Housing,” referring to a now-edited Universal Hub headline that called them such – Adam Gaffin of UH later apologized for using the word – the group released a statement asking that the MBTA remove all of the armrests, not just the ones in Central Square. They also called on the city of Cambridge to remove any other hostile architecture, and provide permanent housing for its unhoused population.

“Anti-homeless architecture is cruel and violent,” the group says in a statement shared on Twitter. “In solidarity with the unhoused communities of Cambridge and Boston, we have taken action to remove the hostile architecture from [the] MBTA.”

Advertisement:

The MBTA began installing the armrests last year. A series of tweets from September said the focus was on accessibility.

“These new armrests offer additional support to switch between standing and seated positions for our older riders and others with varying disabilities,” one of the tweets said. “Even the simplest additions can make a positive impact on how riders use public transit.”

When asked about the armrests, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo gave a similar response.

“Designed by the MBTA’s system-wide accessibility department, the armrests offer structural support for customers with mobility challenges when they want to stand up or sit down,” Pesaturo said in a statement emailed to Boston.com. “The T’s design standard for benches calls for armrests per ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. Benches are being modified as station improvement projects continue throughout the transit system.

Advertisement:

“The objective is in a directive from the T’s chief engineer: Design for benches for all new construction, repair or replacement projects shall follow standards that are consistent with MBTA’s priorities to the safety and accessibility of our passengers,” Pesaturo said.

But others have urged the MBTA to remove the armrests, or find an alternative. The Cambridge City Council during its Jan. 11 meeting passed a non-binding resolution asking for the MBTA to “reconsider the configuration of bars on benches.” Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said during that meeting that the T was amenable to finding a different solution.

“I’m really glad they’re willing to reconsider this,” he said.

Advertisement:

Councilor Marc McGovern also supported the measure, though he acknowledged it would be a short-term help versus a homelessness solution.

“This is not going to solve homelessness, but it does make a difference for people,” he said.

Councilor Denise Simmons, however, voted against it, noting that she wants the city to focus on how to help unhoused people in different ways.

“I don’t think congregating in the subway station is a good place for the homeless community, particularly in this season of COVID when you want people to social distance, when you want people to take precautions,” she said.

Advertisement:

Multiple people made comments to the council in support of removing the armrests, also noting the racial justice aspect of the issue. Statistics show that African Americans make up 13 percent of the nation’s population; when it comes to homelessness, they make up about 40 percent of that population, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

Comments from those that wrote into the council were similar in advocating for a focus on Cambridge’s residents without permanent housing.

“The needs of the unhoused community cannot be ignored any longer,” a couple of the letters filed with the city said.

Cambridge’s resolution pointed to a New York Times article on hostile architecture with photos showing spikes lining a brick flower planter, and a wooden bench with small metal rods going across it to make it uncomfortable to lay on.

Advertisement:

“Proponents say this type of urban design is necessary to help maintain order, ensure safety and curb unwanted behavior such as loitering, sleeping or skateboarding,” the November 2019 article said. “But hostile architecture, in New York and other cities, has increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call ‘anti-homeless spikes’ for targeting those who have nowhere else to go.”

The MBTA isn’t the only place in Boston to find bench dividers. The City of Boston celebrated its “Age-Friendly Bench program” in September 2019, a ribbon cutting showing Mayor Marty Walsh surrounded by seniors and others. One of the new silver city benches has a handle protruding from the middle.

“These additional benches will make our streets more walkable, commutes more comfortable, and allow older residents access to areas of the City they enjoy,” Walsh said in a press release from the time. “We’re installing them where we need them most: around our libraries, community centers, senior centers, main streets and business districts.”

The mayor’s press office did not return an email request seeking comment.

“If it’s about accessibility, and you want to improve accessibility for people with mobility limitations, why not put the armrests at the end of the benches?” questioned Tim Lawrence, a transit advocate, according to an article from The Boston Globe last September on the MBTA’s armrests. “It really is the case where you see these [armrests] regularly placed all across the bench.”

Get Boston.com's browser alerts:

Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com