Redesigning Adelaide's CBD to protect our most vulnerable

Gerald Matthews
Managing Director and Senior Architect at Matthews Architects

Adelaide is considered one of the most liveable cities in the world, but is this true for

Homelessness is a multifaceted issue. The challenges are many and exist in both
the social and physical elements of our community.

As a city and a society, we must ask ourselves, are we making our best effort to
provide facilities and infrastructure that reduce homelessness or at the very least
alleviate the impact of being homeless. In Adelaide I believe we fail to make
considerations for those who are marginalized, instead adopting an ethos of hostility
through design that discourages instead of accommodates.

When we design and create in the context of our city we must also consider those
who engage with our city and public spaces unconventionally, out of dire necessity
rather than passively or for pleasure or interest.

We’re lucky to live in a country where it feels like there isn’t an enormous disparity
between the haves and the have-nots. Even though wealth inequality in Australia is
increasing with the top 20 per cent earning almost half of all income while the bottom
20 per cent earn 4 per cent. For the most part we all work for a living and we identify
somewhere in the middle.

Homelessness is a far more complicated issue than “poverty” and the associated
range of causes need to be understood before they can each be addressed. It may
not be achievable to structure a society so that there is no homelessness, but rather
a realistic goal might be to ensure that there are plenty of ways out of homelessness.
One of the most challenging issues to address for Adelaide and many other modern
cities, is homelessness connected to mental health. If someone finds themselves
homeless for reasons that include mental health it becomes an even bigger
challenge to improve their situation without a home, hence why designing public
spaces should embrace rather than deter those who are most vulnerable in our

When only a few of us are homeless it is all too easy for the tone of the public realm
to silently say “I don’t care where you go, but you can’t sleep here.” Though the issue
is larger than this, our collective social conscience needs to consider the situation of
homelessness more holistically, because this problem belongs to everyone.

During the depression of the 1930s widespread poverty overcame New York City,
rough sleepers turned Central Park into a slum neighbourhood that housed
thousands, this scenario wasn’t only forced upon mental health sufferers, it became
the situation for many who simply couldn’t afford to live within a reasonable travel
distance of possible work opportunities. This provides an example of how historically,
homelessness could become a direct problem for any one of us.

We need a constantly vigilant social conscience that takes the issue just as seriously
for one homeless individual as it would for millions. If we can’t find compassion and
caring in the design of our own public spaces, how can we truly take pride in our city
or accept the privilege of welcoming those who have found themselves to be globally
homeless as refugees?

We see bus seats that are too short or too narrow to sleep on, benches with
unnecessary arms that prevent a person from laying down, metal lugs on flat
concrete surfaces and public seating, justified as the protection of public assets from

Perhaps instead we should be designing our iconic public spaces, such as our city
squares, as a bold statement of our support for those sleeping rough. Perhaps our
local government should shift the public attitude from “moving people along” to “how
can we help?”.

Many of the ideas to accommodate homelessness in our city are really quite simple
and much of the infrastructure already exists. Perhaps we should consider public
buildings that can ‘mode shift’ to provide a civic function through the day and support
homelessness at night? Think school gyms, convention facilities or could Parliament
House even shelter people at night? Obviously, challenges exist in this idea –
amenities, cooking facilities, personal sleeping pods and lockers to name a few, and
not to mention the ‘not in my backyard’ brigade.

Many of these services are very capably provided by established charities and not
for profit groups, but they can’t be scaled up quickly. Instead, if we do have to
respond to a sudden increase in economically triggered homelessness, we should
first look to make better use of public infrastructure. Cities like New York have
undertaken design competitions to seek potential solutions. Several of these look to
add small personal sleeping and storage pods to existing buildings that have
available amenities – surely its worth discussing at the very least?

We may not be able to solve the issue of homelessness over night, but the things we
do have control over, such as physical space should be our absolute priority in
supporting our most marginalized community members.