Cities, Climate, Inequalities

Architecture + Homelessness: Inclusive practices for urban solidarity

April 2024

Carolyne Grimard, assistant professor at the School of Social Work (Université de Montréal), Sonia Blank, architect and research associate (ASFQ), Sarahlou Wagner Lapierre, Ph.D student in philosophy, (Université de Montréal and research associate, ASFQ), Elizabeth Prince, research professional, (Université de Montréal and research associate, ASFQ) and Véronic Lapalme, Ph.D candidate in social work, (Université de Montréal and research associate, ASFQ).


In 2020, 20% of those staying at the Notre-Dame encampment in Montreal were experiencing homelessness for the first time (Leblanc et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic—in combination with other challenges like the housing crisis, the migration crisis, and the climate crisis—has produced greater socio-economic inequality and exacerbated homelessness in urban areas. However, it is important to recognize that such “crises” are the predictable outcome of a system rooted in colonial and capitalist ways of thinking. This is why the research process needs to address underlying structural issues when seeking to understand the role of urban planning practices in producing such negative outcomes. At the same time, an architectural approach to the study and transformation of urban environments has the potential to promote solidarity and make cities more responsive to the needs of people experiencing homelessness (PEH) or at risk of homelessness. Accordingly, the study described below focused on understanding how the well-being of PEH can be promoted through better planning practices. It drew on the work of a multidisciplinary team drawn from Architecture sans Frontières Québec (ASF) and the School of Social work at the Université de Montréal. Researchers investigated planning initiatives designed to dismantle exclusionary structures, rethink notions of “home,” and adapt design practices to the realities of life on the street. In light of the ongoing and future impacts of climate change on PEH, these research efforts can help ensure that issues of homelessness receive the attention they deserve in the context of climate action.

State of the academic literature

According to Kidd et al. (2020), scholars have only just begun to explore the health and social impacts of climate change on PEH. But these authors also point out that precarious living conditions clearly make PEH exceptionally vulnerable to climate hazards that can negatively affect their physical and mental health by exacerbating social and health challenges, such as chronic illness or social stigma. For instance, multiple studies have found increased cold-related morbidity and mortality among PEH (Koutsavlis et al., 2003; Romaszko et al., 2017). Likewise, increased exposure to precipitation (snow, freezing rain, hail, etc.) carries health risks (Zhang et al., 2019). Tools like the RESTING SAFE Environmental Justice Toolkit offer a promising approach to addressing such issues. Developed by and for PEH, the toolkit provides guidance on protecting against various hazards, including mould, fire, air pollution, and soil pollution (Goodling, 2020). According to Harlan et al. (2013), the risk of mortality during heat waves is also much higher for PEH, especially those living in city-centre neighbourhoods and industrial areas. Although the research summary presented below does not focus on impacts and responses associated with such climate hazards, it does discuss more inclusive approaches to planning and climate change adaptation, approaches that do a better job of taking the experiences of PEH into account.

The ASF and Université de Montréal research team undertook its own review of the literature, with the aim of identifying works that discuss homelessness in relation to the built environment. Initially, “homeless” (like the equivalent French term, itinérant) was used to describe men who wandered from one source of assistance to the next in the hopes of having their basic needs met (Otero and Roy, 2013). Today, the expression “people experiencing homelessness” refers to a range of situations faced by individuals dealing with multiple forms of vulnerability and discrimination. In fact, people categorized as experiencing homelessness do not necessarily lack access to a dwelling of some sort. Rather, their vision of housing may not be in line with the normative understanding of “home” as a private space in a permanent building at a fixed address (Grimard, 2022).

All the planning practices identified in the course of the study involved efforts to reshape the urban environment, whether through consultation, legislation, programming, design, construction, or occupation. They variously involved initiatives undertaken by planning experts and social workers, as well as by users of buildings and public space. And they all aimed to improve the well-being of PEH. For the purposes of the study, well-being was defined in terms of balancing individual satisfaction with aspirations regarding living environments and the latter’s objective characteristics (Moser, 2009). Six main types of practices were considered: urban encampments, public spaces (squares, parks, sidewalks, libraries, etc.), tiny house villages, day centres, emergency shelters, and supportive housing.

To date, only a very small volume of literature has addressed the relationship between architecture and homelessness. In terms of academic research, only a handful of studies have looked at how planning efforts contribute to PEH being overlooked, displaced, detained, and monitored. Even fewer works have discussed planning practices capable of promoting the well-being of PEH (Rollings & Bollo, 2021). Based on the study’s definition of well-being, such practices would involve identifying the needs and aspirations of PEH in relation to their living environment, and adapting planning efforts accordingly. Such a shift can be difficult for research teams and planning professionals, who often lack tools that would allow them to offer practical planning advice. Nor does their training typically provide them with a thorough understanding of the complex realities surrounding homelessness. To begin with, PEH constitute a highly diverse group. They may engage with the built environment very differently depending on their age, cultural identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental condition, everyday practices, etc. Little research has been conducted on the needs specific to each population, let alone on the needs that may stem from different combinations of identities and practices. For example, there is a clear gap in the literature with respect to good design practices for ensuring the safety of drug users. Second, PEH have had few opportunities to participate in research studies. In part, this absence can be explained in terms of how stigma, discrimination, and marginalization limit the participation of PEH in social, cultural, academic, and political life generally (Whiteford, 2011). But the experiences of PEH make them experts in their own right. Accordingly, academic researchers need to adopt a new approach that recognizes the value of experiential knowledge. Moreover, there have been virtually no post-occupancy studies on how projects impact occupants. This makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about a given project or to identify best practices. Finally, the study reflects somewhat limited cultural perspectives. All the sources used were written in either French or English, and most of them were published by academics based in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia.

Case, methods, and original research data

A review of both the academic and the grey literature was undertaken to identify planning practices capable of promoting the well-being of PEH. Given the general lack of academic publications meeting they study’s selection criteria (i.e., works addressing the relationship between planning and the well-being of PEH) the grey literature, including reports on planning projects intended to benefit PEH, provided unique insight into expert and experiential planning knowledge developed by the institutions and organizations involved. Meanwhile, an analysis of North American and European planning projects intended to benefit PEH provided additional concrete examples that serve to illustrate relevant planning practices.

Search Terms Used for the Primary and Secondary Literature Review
More than 150 primary and secondary sources were reviewed, allowing for the identification of some 200 inclusive planning practices with the potential to promote urban solidarity. A team of five researchers classified these results and verified their work before presenting it for assessment by an advisory committee whose members were drawn from the community sector and academia.
Categorization of Planning Practices

Source: ASF, 2022

Practices were categorized according to five main themes: (1) recognizing the right to public space, (2) facilitating social coexistence, (3) designing inclusive spaces, (4) planning safe spaces, and (5) supporting self-determination. The first two categories relate to citywide efforts for addressing the friction that can result from the shared use of public spaces and for developing the tools needed to promote respectful coexistence. The third category relates to research, consultation, and design processes that should be prioritized when seeking to create spaces that are inclusive of PEH. The final two categories relate to the built environment and how the latter can better address the needs of PEH.


Recognizing the Right to Public Space and Facilitating Social Coexistence

There is a disconnect between the ideal of universally accessible public space and the lived reality of those who use it. Often, public space is only accessible to those who adopt socially acceptable behaviours. Those whose behaviours are deemed unacceptable find themselves excluded (Iveson, 1998). Unfettered access to public space has also come to depend on having disposable income and a home of one’s own (Laberge & Roy, 2001). Meanwhile, the presence of PEH engaging in everyday activities (sleeping, urinating, engaging in informal work) is seen as disruptive (Bellot et al., 2005). Not only have such behaviours been the target of criminal legislation and municipal by-laws, but hostile architecture and defensive design have been deployed to deter PEH from occupying public spaces. Furthermore, projects intended to benefit PEH often prompt negative reactions and opposition from nearby residents who deem such projects unsuitable for areas where they live or work, a phenomenon dubbed “not in my backyard” (NIMBY).

Accordingly, beyond the construction of facilities, the practices identified through the research study aim to facilitate social coexistence through outreach efforts and design-based reasoning. For instance, there is an obvious need to equip public spaces with a range of services adapted to the needs of PEH. Examples include well-maintained washroom facilities that are always open and safe for drug users; regular waste collection adapted to informal living environments, including the collection of hazardous objects; access to storage, a mailing address, important information, and electricity; as well as year-round drop-in centres with no entry restrictions or treatment requirements.[1] Design can also help reduce public opposition to projects intended to benefit PEH by supporting community consultations and by showcasing opportunities for respectful coexistence (BC Housing, Community Acceptance Series and Toolkits; Affordability and Choice Today, 2016; Connelly, 2005). By including spaces open to non-residents, projects can create both non-institutional gathering places for occupants and shared neighbourhood spaces (e.g., Shelter from the Storm, VinziRast, Le café de la maison ronde, MLK1011).

Inclusive Design

Source: ASFQ, 2022

Designing Inclusive Spaces

All stakeholders—including PEH, decision makers, the research community, and design teams—need to actively participate in the design of inclusive spaces. Traditionally, research on inclusive design has focused on the principle of universal access while largely disregarding broader notions of inclusion (Ilie, 2014). Beyond being universally accessible, inclusive environments must be diverse, flexible, and welcoming to a wide range of individuals. Such spaces need to provide everyone present—including those with special needs—with a sense of belonging (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, 2008). Research, design, and consultation processes must therefore be integrated in a way that promotes a better understanding of the needs of all stakeholders.

Consider the lack of research on the diverse needs and tastes of PEH with respect to the built environment. Individuals who have experienced being without a home are in the best position to assess the impact of homelessness on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being (Sakamoto et al., 2008). The value of such experiential knowledge needs to be recognized (ibid.), research data need to be validated by PEH and the latter’s contributions as research participants need to be properly credited. The resulting body of work would provide a much more solid foundation for architectural design efforts. Planners should also prioritize participatory design processes that not only allow for the expression and consideration of diverse viewpoints, but also provide for the practical implementation of stakeholders’ ideas. Furthermore, design choices need to be validated by those who will use the space. And yet, little evidence is available regarding the success of participatory design initiatives or the satisfaction of occupants with the resulting spaces. Post-occupancy studies and experiential feedback could be used to develop more inclusive design approaches and to better understand interactions between users of urban space and their environment. Finally, reaching out to the populations concerned and preparing a range of strategies for encouraging their participation would allow for more accessible and representative public consultations (Leblanc, 2021; Prud’homme, 2019).

Planning Safe Spaces and Supporting Self-Determination 

Being deprived of a home can be a traumatizing experience. Pable, McLane, and Trujillo (2022) have explained how trauma gives rise to various needs: for the capacity to face and manage stress, for security, for privacy, for personal space, and for the presence of beauty and meaningful things. Trauma-informed design can produce a built environment that promotes healing, self-esteem, recognition, and self-determination. Furthermore, this approach to planning emphasizes the fundamental importance of ontological security for people who have experienced homelessness. In other words, the well-being of PEH depends on a sense of continuity with their social and material environment. This environment needs to support daily routines, provide freedom from monitoring and control, and create a safe space for developing a personal identity (Rollings & Bollo, 2021). Ultimately, “home” could be defined as a safe space or a refuge that is subject to fewer restrictions than public space (Molony, 2010; Rollings & Bollo, 2021). As noted above, when reflecting on the notion of home, it is important to look beyond normative understandings and recognize that a sense of home can exist in a variety of spaces (encampment, vehicle, squat, street, etc.) and depend on a variety of factors (family, community, animals, land, water, language, etc.).

Applying these considerations to planning efforts requires addressing the fundamental needs identified through the trauma-informed design process (Pable & Ellis, 2017). Meanwhile, the process of creating a safe environment needs to involve reducing acute stressors through measures like equipping buildings with multiple entrances and exits, placing furniture for resting against a wall, and creating pathways without dead ends and with views of common areas. Moreover, striking a balance between private spaces and spaces for socialization can help foster a sense of comfort, self-control, self-determination, and belonging. Aesthetic considerations also appear key to creating a sense of home. Works of art and decor elements should reflect the cultural background and tastes of occupants. Plans should also include natural elements, appropriate lighting, and a layout that is more domestic than institutional. Finally, it is essential to position amenities with nearby networks and services in mind. Planners can also use design to support formal or informal initiatives led by PEH, while taking great care to respect the latter’s autonomy and self-management. Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, provides a case in point.


The study found that urban and resource planning efforts intended to address homelessness have largely failed to consider the viewpoints of PEH. Public consultations, the design process, and academic research have rarely acknowledged the experiential knowledge, needs, and aspirations of those who have actually experienced being without a home. And although the academic literature currently allows for identifying certain needs among PEH, it provides very little information on overrepresented groups, including Indigenous, LGBTQIA2S+, and migrant communities. Given this disconnect with the realities faced by different marginalized populations, urban planning efforts would clearly benefit from post-occupancy studies and feedback on participatory design approaches. Likewise, it would be important to explore innovative planning approaches like transitional occupancy, building repurposing, and inclusive zoning. In short, there is an urgent need for planning experts and urban authorities to actively set about dismantling the exclusionary structures that have prevented PEH from fully participating in city life. Given the worsening effects of climate change, it will also be important to develop adaptation strategies for mitigating its disproportionate impact on homeless populations.

[1] As reflected in certain planning projects cited in the guide (Pop-Up by Bridgman Collaborative, H.O.P.E. Lockers by Legacy Initiative, Comptoir postal by Le Sac à dos). Studies cited in the guide include Davis (2004) and Laberge and Roy (2001).

To cite this article

Blank, S. (2024). Architecture + Homelessness: Inclusive practices for urban solidarity. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

* This publication was made possible with the financial support of the Government of Quebec and the Ville de Montréal through the Entente de développement culturel de Montréal and the Fonds d’initiative et de rayonnement de la métropole. It was made possible with the financial support of Mitacs Accélérations, SSHRC and the Université de Montréal School of Social Work.
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