Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Homelessness and the Built Environment

Jill Pable, Yelena McLane, Lauren Trujillo




Homelessness and the Built Environment focuses on middle- and high-income countries, including tips for the supportive design of night shelters, day centres and transitional housing flats. The book includes many photos and examples taken from facilities that the authors visited.

They note early on that the idea of human-centred, trauma-informed design for unhoused people can meet with resistance:

“…what designers (including us!) have encountered from some members of the public – that efforts to improve shelters or supportive housing are about making things ‘pretty’ or ‘just making it too easy’ such that people will languish there, delaying their progress out of homelessness.

Such attitudes, honestly, are an insult to the hardships that homelessness imposes on people and invoke a counterproductive sense of punishment as a means to a solution. It also disavows the potential of intentionally designed places to positively impact the well-being of both the users of services and staff.”

Clearly, there are limits to what architecture and design can do in the face of the enormous structural causes of insecure housing. Yet the book makes the case that these design initiatives are still important, in terms of both respecting dignity and contributing practically to the work of homeless organizations. For instance, one case study location has combined a shelter for unhoused people with a café that’s open to the public, to encourage community support for such facilities.

Scale is an important concern when designing around homelessness. Given the large populations in need of temporary housing in some places, certain American cities, in particular, have turned to mammoth buildings housing up to 1,000 people. Yet the authors suggest that smaller sites offer more potential for integration into the larger community, close to social services, rather than walling off residents within an institution on the edge of a city.

Following one research project on shelters:

“For user satisfaction and a sense of belonging, the authors found that neighborhoods of small, locally owned businesses offered a better neighborhood context than one filled with big box stores or high-rise office towers. The 60-plus case studies the authors reviewed led them to conclude that there is no ideal zoning district per se, but that residential or mixed residential–commercial districts were most successful. No project sited in a heavy industrial zone was found to be satisfactory, nor those near waste management centers or utilities centers. A primary consideration is the reasonable walking distances or public transit access to social and other services, necessary to aid the limited mobility of many clients.”

Another lesson is that even small ways of being able to control the environment – such as lighting and ventilation – can powerfully affect people’s experiences of temporary housing.

Context remains important, of course. What can feel like privacy to a settler community can feel like isolation to an Indigenous community, as suggested by the experiences of the Jimaylya Topsy Harry Centre, a transitional accommodation facility for Indigenous people in Mount Isa, Australia. The Jimaylya Topsy Harry Centre, run by Aboriginal people, includes a camping option and allows measured drinking, in contrast to many other transitional centres.

The examples scattered throughout Homelessness and the Built Environment point to the breadth of homelessness, but also offer some reasons to hope that change is possible, one tiny step at a time.



Further reading:

Greenspan, Sam (2016), “Half a house”, 99% Invisible, available at https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/half-a-house/.

National Healthcare for the Homeless Council (2019), Homelessness & Health: What’s Possible?, available at https://nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/homelessness-and-health.pdf.

Van Noorloos, Femke, Liza Rose Cirolia, Abigail Friendly, Smruti Jukur, Sophie Schramm, Griet Steel and Lucía Valenzuela (2020), “Incremental housing as a node for intersecting flows of city-making: rethinking the housing shortage in the global South”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 32, No 1, pages 37–54, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247819887679.

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