On Unpleasantness

We were looking at different examples that are to be found everywhere in European cities. From enhanced-CCTV surveillance to bench handles, various tracking and prevention systems are employed in controlling the users of public space. These systems are often neatly designed and seamlessly integrated in the existing architecture, acting in a persuasive way on its users. While preventing unwanted interactions between the authorities and citizens, these systems leave no space for discussion or disobedience.

Unlike the old surveillance systems that were equally targeting all people on the street, new systems of control have the ability of targeting specific groups – like teenagers or homeless. In this way, they contribute to a growing social segregation in cities. In most cases, the targeted problems are not solved, but moved elsewhere. And when the problem is moved, it usually concentrates in places where these policies are not applied, making them even less safe and comfortable. The application of ‘politics of exclusion’ and concentration lowers the chances of ‘naturally occurring good behaviour’.

Re-enactment of Fakir's Rest in Rotterdam on a so-called Leaning Bench, Rotterdam 2011

What all these examples have in common is their ‘unpleasantness’ for human beings. Contrary to the studies of ergonomics, these objects are designed with uncomfortability in mind. Whereas one could argue that a political decision is inherent in any design process, the difference here is that this design process stems from top-down decisions and deliberately tries to communicate subtle (instructions) messages into our common environment. They replace the agency of law and order enforcement, by simply making unwanted behaviour impossible.

Unpleasant design is crucial. It is planned in detail and its execution is delicate. This small niche of objects and apparatuses is a manifestation of local political structures which affect reality, besides being simply fashionable (like the anti-pigeons ‘needles’ to prevent pigeons from ‘landing’ and sitting on certain spaces). Objects shouldn’t look like intended to control social behaviour. Hence, they are neatly designed not to stir too much social disturbance. However, their aim to subconsciously make us feel uncomfortable bears enough space for speculation.



In our research of Unpleasant design solutions, we identified surveillance and repellent systems which are based on objects (tactile and spatial interventions), devices (sound and light) and surveillance.


  • Anti-resting bench

In the past 10 years, there is a tendency to install benches with handles in parks, at bus and train stations. The space between the handles is enough for only one person, so people sitting together on the bench are separated by handles. This way, a body of an adult person could not fit to lay down.

Rotterdam metro bench, with handle bars agains sleeping

Because the presence of homeless people in city centres is less and less tolerated, this became a very popular solution.

  • Asocial benches and chairs

For the same reason benches got handles, a new design of very short benches is introduced. These benches can fit only one person, so they prevent sleeping in public space. They are usually found in groups of three or four, presenting an image of a gathering and socialising, while actually keeping people away from each other.

  • Unpleasant to touch

After carefully examining a railing on a very tall bridge in Vevey, Switzerland, we noticed it is covered with a rough material, something of a sand-paper quality. The reason for using this material might be to discourage suicidal attempts, as the contact with the railing is already so unpleasant. On the other side, the reason might be purely hygienic, for it probably gets less dirty when nobody is touching it.

Railing on a bridge in Vevey, Switzerland that is unpleasant to touch


  • Mosquito

The Mosquito device functions as a high frequency buzz (17,4KHz) is employed to keep away teenagers from gathering in publicly accessible spaces like shopping malls, street corners, courtyards, etc. Mosquito is supposed to target specifically the population under 25. Unlike their older cohabitants, the young population should be able to hear the repelling sound buzz at 5 dB above background noise levels. In practice this age border does not function exactly as intended.

Mosquito devices mounted on a street light pole in downtown Chicago; courtesy of Dave Hoffman


  • Blue Light

Blue neon lights were successfully used in public bathrooms and publicly accessible toilets, as a means of preventing drug users from injecting themselves. Because it makes veins harder to see, it is expected that drug users will stop using these bathrooms for the aforementioned purpose.

Blue lights in a public toilet at Bonn central station; courtesy of Jurjen van Enter


  • Pink Light

Pink lights have recently appeared as a measure against teenage loitering, because they are supposed to highlight skin blemishes. When they were first installed by a resident’s association in Mansfield, UK in 2006, even though many sarcastic views were expressed in media, to the Mansfield residents it seemed like a cheap and doable solution.



  • CCTV

A lot of debate has been going on around closed circuit video surveillance in cities, since the mid 1980s when they became regularly introduced in US and later the UK. Simple video surveillance is today often equipped with facial recognition and motion tracking, to make more efficient use of the system. With the excuse of the ‘war on terrorism’, enhanced video surveillance systems have been deployed at airports, massive(sports) events, and night clubs.

Studies of the way CCTV operators identify potential threat or problems have shown that they actively discriminate against races and sexes, targeting and scrutinizing young black men or particular subcultural groups. This discriminatory practice was later integrated in CCTV systems enhanced with facial recognition techniques, to target and track individual.*

Many other examples can be identified in cities and we are always looking for new unpleasant solutions.

In this research, we also considered different strategies to overcome the unpleasantness of these designs. Re-appropriation, augmentation and flooding are some of them.

Read more at http://unpleasant.pravi.me

*In their book Splintering Urbanism, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin discuss this phenomenon more in detail