Jan 31, 2024 - Politics

I-5 boulders spark debate over "hostile architecture"

A splitscreen image showing an encampment near a freeway at left and the same encampment replaced with boulders at right.

An encampment along I-5 near Sleater Kinney Road in Thurston County was recently cleared and replaced with boulders. Photo: Courtesy of WSDOT

Washington state officials are debating when, if ever, it's appropriate to install permanent fixtures in public spaces to try to stop people who are experiencing homelessness from sleeping there.

Why it matters: The state's installation of dozens of boulders at the sites of newly cleared encampments along Interstate 5 has spurred questions about whether so-called "hostile architecture" is a good use of public money.

What's happening: A bill in Washington's Legislature would ban cities and counties from using hostile architecture, defined as "any building or structure that is designed or intended to prevent people experiencing homelessness from sitting or lying on the building or structure at street level."

Flashback: While the state's boulders are a more recent example of this type of installation, Seattle officials were roundly criticized about six years ago for placing bike racks under part of Highway 99, in a spot where the city had removed people's tents.

  • Critics said the bike racks were clearly aimed at deterring camping, as they weren't in a well-traveled area convenient for bicyclists.
  • The city transportation department removed the bike racks shortly afterward, spokesperson Ethan Bergerson told Axios.

Latest: The measure to ban hostile architecture at the local level received a hearing last week before a state Senate committee, although it looks unlikely to advance this legislative session.

  • The bill wouldn't apply to the state Department of Transportation, which installed the I-5 boulders. Yet WSDOT's recent action drove much of the conversation.

What they're saying: Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said she was "dismayed" that the state had spent about $700,000 to install the boulders at the sites of former encampments along freeways.

  • Thomas said public money should "be used to address the underlying cause, the root causes of homelessness, instead of treating people like pigeons that you want to make disappear."

Yes, but: State Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes), the prime sponsor of the measure, said a group of architects expressed concerns that the hostile architecture bill may need some work, including in how it defines which structures are banned.

  • Lovelett said the proposal originated with students at Lake Washington High School, and architects plan to reach out directly to the students to discuss more details.
  • For her part, Lovelett said she has "mixed feelings" about WSDOT's use of boulders to prevent encampments.
  • "Having people locating where they are that close to folks who are driving 80 miles per hour seems kind of inherently unsafe," she told Axios last week. "But is putting almost a million dollars of boulders there the solution?"

What's next: WSDOT told Axios it will continue to use boulders to discourage camping in limited circumstances.

  • So far, the agency has installed boulders "very sparingly," using them at six sites statewide — three in Thurston County and the rest in Wenatchee and Vancouver, WSDOT spokesperson Kris Abrudan told Axios.
  • The agency plans to place more boulders soon at another site in Vancouver, Abrudan said.
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