Home Away from No Home

Landscape architects can’t solve homelessness with just design. As Brice Maryman, ASLA, is finding, they have to grasp the phenomenon—and are only beginning.

By Jonathan Lerner

Blue tarps, reminiscent of refugee crises, announce the presence of unsanctioned encampments. Photo by Brice Maryman, ASLA.

One morning last March, Brice Maryman, ASLA, walked to his downtown Seattle office at MIG|SvR through linear parkland that hugs Interstate 90. Maryman recently completed a Landscape Architecture Foundation fellowship to explore the intersection of homelessness and public space; one result is his podcast HomeLandLab. Now he wanted to check on some encampments. He has a boyish look, a gingery beard, and a ready chuckle. He was dressed like many Seattle professionals, in a hooded puffer jacket and sneakers. He doesn’t smoke, but before leaving the house he dropped an unopened pack of Marlboros into his bag. “My public outreach tool,” he grinned. Also for distribution: new socks, granola bars.

Seattle is a powerhouse of contrasts. The city has added about 22,000 jobs a year recently, but only about 8,000 new residential units. The median house price doubled between 2012 and 2017. In Maryman’s originally working class and still less-than-glamorous neighborhood, new town houses smaller than 1,500 square feet on postage-stamp lots are listing for around $700,000. Downtown and its margins are thick with new residential towers and construction cranes. But Seattle, with surrounding King County, has among the largest homeless populations, per capita, of any American metropolis. A one-night count in January 2019 found 11,199 people homeless. Nearly half were “unsheltered”—sleeping not in emergency shelters or transitional housing but in parks, beneath bridges, in doorways, parking lots, alleys, or the verges of expressway on-ramps. They live in cars or RVs, vacant buildings, tents, or literally without shelter. Drifts of makeshift dwellings shape themselves to interstitial spaces, seemingly everywhere. From a distance, they are unified by their blue tarps. Blue tarps, as in refugee camps.

Maryman pulled on an orange safety vest, stepped off the paved trail, and headed down a steep informal path. The vest, suggesting he was a park worker, counterintuitively made his approach “less threatening,” he said. Homeless people, “often themselves victims” of theft, manipulative drug dealers, or sexual attack, can be wary of strangers. Nearing a small cluster of tents, he stood well back and called cheerfully, “Knock, knock! Anybody home?” Home.

Maryman rarely refers to “homeless people,” preferring “people experiencing homelessness” instead. Like many homelessness activists, he considers it a passing state, not a static categorization, a condition that might befall anybody. Homelessness has its own argot. Individuals may be “sheltered” or “unsheltered.” In Seattle, there are informal encampments, but also “authorized” or “sanctioned” encampments that are on city properties or hosted by churches. These are also usually “managed,” run by social service agencies or activist groups, or sometimes “self-managed” by residents. Such encampments are typically required to relocate periodically. But unlike informal ones, they will not be “swept,” when tents and their contents are cleared away by city workers with just half an hour’s warning. Nor are they impounded like vehicles parked in one spot for more than 72 hours, which then accrue towing and storage charges and fines their owners often can’t pay.

Another term you hear is “housing insecurity,” a condition of people who aren’t homeless yet but are “swirling the drain,” says Graham Pruss, a University of Washington doctoral candidate in anthropology, once homeless himself, who studies the problem. These people are one unpredicted expense from disaster. “Many more people are housing insecure than they realize,” Pruss remarks. His research focus is “vehicular homelessness.” Often, when people lose their homes, a vehicle is their last major possession, and a preferable alternative to the street, offering a bit of privacy, security, and mobility.

Then, the wonky euphemisms. Honolulu’s mayor lauded his city’s “compassionate disruption program” of sweeping people and their stuff from sidewalks to force them into shelters. Anitra Freeman, a homeless activist Maryman interviewed on his podcast, uses the less obfuscatory “pain theory of ending homelessness” for the same policy. But people sometimes resist the shelter system because they have had bad experiences there or fear losing autonomy or the community of the streets. Two academics studying homelessness in Melbourne, Australia, assert that “municipal micro-aesthetics” is the justification used for such enforcement, which criminalizes homeless people who are occupying public space and offending public sensibilities. Pruss mocks these locutions thusly: “Stop suffering in public, because we don’t want to see it!” Of course, cities lack amenities for unhoused living. Seattle, for example, has only six 24-hour public restrooms; using the United Nations’ standard for refugee camps, given Seattle’s homeless population there should be more than 200. Without the adequate infrastructure and “basic maintenance of the public realm, civic trust declines,” Maryman points out. “There’s an impact on everyone, a downward spiral, and less investment in public spaces.”

Just as their sleeping situations vary widely, homeless people themselves don’t all have, in Maryman’s words, “that one story.” Homelessness is a nuanced, complex ecosystem, as global and daunting as sea-level rise. Landscape architects and policy makers can address higher tides in a given place with floodable waterfronts and climate-risk-adapted building codes, but still can’t prevent storm surge. Designers and others can make similarly tactical gestures in response to homelessness, as they are doing with some creativity in Seattle. But they can’t resolve it. Not with design alone, anyway.

Sit someplace else: metal studs on steps, an example of “hostile architecture.” Image courtesy Docteurcosmos (CC BY-SA 3.0).

“There has been an absence of dialogue within our profession, other than how to design benches with arms that prevent people from sleeping,” says Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, who was on a panel about homelessness at the 2015 ASLA convention. “How can we use our professional skills, financial support, and political influence to insist that our communities look for solutions that address the needs of individuals, rather than force people experiencing homelessness to simply stay on the move?” Her panel focused more on how to comprehend the ecosystem than on design, as did Maryman with his fellowship. He spent it reading, and talking with people involved in the issue; his podcast consists of those conversations. It’s tempting, but naive, to expect that after a year of this he could have come up with some transformative generic concept for public space, or a specific site design, that happily welcomes everyone including those who might need to spend the night. “We’re just beginning to understand this phenomenon,” he explains. “But landscape architects have a fearlessness to run into ambiguity and start asking questions.”

Those questions frequently lead back to the fact that homelessness results from historic forces that are global, economic, political, and—consider, for example, the thousands still unhoused after last summer’s fires in California—environmental. But designers want to design, and it’s what they know how to do. So aside from hostile architecture that discourages using public places, what are tangible, if small, interventions that might help mitigate the problem?

A bed of rocks beneath an on-ramp, to make sleeping there unpleasant. Photo by Brice Maryman, ASLA.

Pruss envisions “touch-screen social service kiosks in public spaces” that would direct people in need to shelters, food banks, and such. Freeman wants “transit hubs where you can hang out.” Such a space might incorporate elements of a concept for a homeless shelter’s intake patio by Jill Pable, a project leader at Design Resources for Homelessness and professor of interior architecture at Florida State University. Acknowledging the prevalence of mental illness and trauma among homeless people, this proposal includes features like a clock that “anchors the space and [users] to reality,” and “protected-back seating areas and leaning walls to encourage socialization without fear.” A technological concept, thought up by designers if not an actual design, is ProxyAddress, which won a Royal Institute of British Architects award. It’s a database of empty properties which can serve as “proxy” addresses for accessing services, applying for jobs, maintaining bank accounts, and the like.

Also not exactly design, but rendered harder or easier by a space’s architecture, is programming. Seattle had a common problem. Typically, emergency shelters kick homeless people out early in the morning; they can’t return until evening, so they need someplace to be during the day. Many congregated in, and were perceived to be appropriating, downtown parks. Part of the solution was installing movable tables and chairs. “You want as much flexibility as possible. Move stuff around all the time, and nobody gets used to owning any particular part of the park,” says Victoria Schoenburg, a strategic adviser at Seattle Parks and Recreation. “The goal is just to break down a sense of turf, so everybody feels the park is open to them.” The other part is intense activation. “We push hardest on low key, inexpensive—that’s relative—daily activation.” Buskers, ping-pong tables, giant chess games, food trucks, “tons of activities that bring positive use,” and that engage and mix together park users regardless of their circumstances. The downtown parks now have concierges. “They wear a green jacket. They’re there to answer questions, be friendly, see if there are problems, call the cops, pick up litter,” thus encouraging responsible behavior. This rethinking of Seattle’s city-center parks is widely considered a success. But it doesn’t apply to less urban parks or other public spaces like streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and waste ground. And it does nothing to address how homeless people spend their nights.

Brice Maryman, at the installation of BLOCK House #4, for which he did site design. Photo by Dorothy Faris, ASLA.

Tiny houses—even really tiny houses—offer considerably more comfort and stability than most homeless people have, certainly in shelters and even in transitional housing. An intriguing Seattle experiment is the BLOCK Project, founded by two architects, Rex Hohlbein and his daughter Jennifer LaFreniere. “Architects, landscape architects, designers—we’re trained to use the design process. That’s problem solving,” Hohlbein says. “We said, ‘How as architects can we actually do something?’ So our brains go right to, ‘We should do a little house.’ And we wanted to do it with this notion of coming closer.” Most of Seattle consists of single-family houses on a regular street grid. The BLOCK Project identifies households—just one per block—willing to have a BLOCK Project house installed in their backyard. But it relies on buy-in from all the neighbors. Before anything happens, outreach is done by the host family. There has been a surprising lack of resistance. “We just head that off and invite everybody in from the beginning,” he says. The prospective host family and tiny house resident are matched by a case manager from a social service agency. “It’s basically a dating service. You’re trying to create a successful coupling.” No money changes hands; it’s not a landlord–tenant relationship. Dispersing the houses counters the ghettoization of people in homelessness. And LaFreniere says, “When you’re talking about tent cities, it’s ‘them moving into our neighborhood.’ But when you’re talking about one person, it’s ‘Bobby, moving onto our block.’” The formerly homeless person has a real, if small, house and neighbors whose lives are, presumably, stable—plus the self-respect and opportunities for connection this situation might provide.

The houses, with 125 square feet inside plus a covered porch, are designed to be off-grid and win Living Building Challenge certification. “This becomes the most forward-thinking home on the block,” Hohlbein says, which he thinks will bolster occupants’ pride of place and reinforce neighbors’ interest. The project pays for 100 square feet of hardscaping and 100 square feet of planting immediately adjacent, and each house gets a volunteer landscape architect who rethinks the yard to accommodate it. At this writing, about 120 hosts had volunteered, and the fourth house, for a woman with an infant, was about to be installed; Maryman was doing the site design. Hohlbein says, “The building and landscape are inseparable. People ask if we would let our design be used in a group, 12 in a parking lot. The answer is no, for the integrative reason, but also for the absence of what landscape can do for healing people and nurturing people and holding people.”

The BLOCK Project puts housing for individual homeless people into stable residential neighborhoods. Image courtesy BLOCK Project.

Most authorized encampments in Seattle are tent cities, but a few indeed are tiny house villages. Most of those are “packed together like Tetris,” says Barron Peper, a recent architecture graduate who had taken a job at Mithun in Seattle but is now with BLOCK Architects. Learning that a new village was going in on a city property, he put together a team of coworkers, including newly minted master in landscape architecture Jescelle Major, to design something better. Two years later, there are 46 houses, each less than 120 square feet, some designed by Peper, in a quiet riot of colors—donated paint!—and 50-some residents including a couple of kids. Other structures house a communal kitchen, showers and laundry, and a security office. The houses are in loose culs-de-sac off a main axis. “You know where the circulation is. The space between houses becomes semiprivate. Some people build out with pallets and plants, and make it their own,” Peper says.

He and Major feel that their educations prepared them for this work—partly. He trained at the University of Texas, where “I wasn’t taught to design objects; I was taught to design human experiences.” Major, whose undergraduate degree from the University of Florida is in sustainability, stresses the project’s unpredictability. Could there be electricity in the houses? (Yes.) Could they trench the conduit? (No. PCBs in the soil.) Plumbing? (No. Maybe. Yes, but only in the wash house.) What about unknown future residents’ genders and family makeup? And the pressure to cram the site full? She values her grounding in natural systems, “change over time, things that are moving and are challenging, and the way culture and social structures fit into place,” she says. “But there’s still a question of dignity, how you’re celebrating a person in and amongst all of these changing climates whether that’s literal or economic.” She adds, “Something I didn’t learn was how to connect with people who aren’t your client, or aren’t like you, or aren’t interested in the design word you’re using, but just need a house. And what do you do when you realize you can’t solve everybody’s problem? That would be a great part of training.”

Maryman was having a tour of that village recently when Andrew Constantino, a resident, joined the conversation. Wearing all black clothes and a pair of sunglasses with acid-green frames, a shock of Gatorade-blue hair escaping the raised hood of his sweatshirt, he looked like a skateboard whiz, or tattoo artist, or composer of postmodern opera. He said, “People look at this and—‘Oh, my god, this is very cute! People have a place! I’m sure within six weeks everyone’s going to get healthy.’ No! The country we live in, 10 million more. You’re looking at the future. We’re collapsing. This will be everywhere, and everyone will be living like this, because it’s obvious: Our economy is a casino.”

Brice Maryman, ASLA, used 2017 data to map the size of homeless populations. Image courtesy Brice Maryman, ASLA; Data Source: 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR).

Pruss sees a problem with this paradigm too: Tiny houses create a new class of minimal housing. He wants homeless people in them, and encampments and vehicles, only long enough to “provide the relief space now, so we can address the systemic, long-term issues blocking them from affordable housing.” Where, he asks, is the fallow land for additional authorized encampments, the parking areas empty overnight where the vehicular homeless could sleep? “How do we utilize that property as well as alleviate the occupation of public space?” King County Assessor John Wilson took a step in that direction by compiling a map of unused publicly owned properties that could be sites for temporary and permanent affordable housing. He found some 300 such parcels larger than 20,000 square feet within a quarter mile of transit. Maryman says, “That simple act of finding land for homes is the most pressing thing. People need homes, and every single home sits on a piece of land.” Still, filling such tracts with housing comes right back to obstacles of politics and economics.

Maryman is now working on a streetscape redesign project for Seattle’s Pioneer Square district. He says that his study of homelessness enhances his understanding of best practices. What’s changed is not the tool kit of tangible design gestures so much as intangibles of inquiry and communication. This project area “has 2,000 supportive housing units, with the very poor and the very rich in close proximity if not in the same buildings. How do you make sure that voices are being included, of people who are living in parks and public spaces and people who are working with that population? It’s a different kind of outreach—more image-based, for example, because they’re not familiar with the terminology.” He adds, “We are just beginning to innovate within a grounded context, to more clearly see the gaps.”

Jonathan Lerner writes often on design and environmental issues.

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