Designing for Public Space Inclusive of Unhoused People

by Katie Kingery-Page, PLA, ASLA, and Skylar Brown, Student ASLA

Persons living unhoused in the former Pershing Square, Los Angeles, 2013
Persons living unhoused in the former Pershing Square, Los Angeles, 2013 / image: Levi Clancy via Wikimedia Commons

Use of public space, such as plazas, streetscapes and parks, by people living unhoused (a.k.a homeless) is persistently viewed as a social problem. Many cities in the United States have attempted to use legal ordinance to place strictures on where unhoused people may congregate or receive services. Several homeless advocacy organizations track such ordinances and they have been detailed in the mainstream press.

According to a recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, “Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing. Over 12.8% of the nation’s supply of low income housing has been permanently lost since 2001.” Homeless advocates widely agree that criminalization of being homeless in public does not help the conditions of homeless people or result in better access to services.

An equity worldview requires cities to plan public spaces for all people. Landscape architects have a strong role to play in promoting inclusion of services and amenities for unhoused people in urban parks. This post begins by asserting why fear of the homeless in public parks is unfounded, then takes a look at recent examples of inclusive parks, built and unbuilt.

Misconceptions of Homelessness

Referring to people living unhoused as “the homeless” implies that their condition is permanent and even of their own choosing. While there may be some cases in which this is true, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, many people find themselves suddenly without housing after a job loss, rent increase, or home foreclosure. According to the same report, “Family homelessness has been on the rise since the inception of the foreclosure crisis in 2007.” In an attempt to respect the varied circumstances and dignity of these persons, we use the phrase “persons living unhoused” throughout this blog post. But because “homeless” is a widely used term, we don’t exclude it from our writing.

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