Sunday, June 27, 2010

Picnic Table by Day... Homeless Shelter by Night.

Did you know that charity organisations across Brisbane City estimate there are more than 4,000 homeless people in Brisbane, with about 400 squatting in the CBD alone.

Melbourne architectural firm Sean Godsell Architects has developed the concept for a make-shift homeless shelter which acts as a public picnic table during the day. The rationale behind their design is:

'Each year millions of dollars are spent on urban infrastructure projects in cities around the world. Bus shelters, tram stops, park benches and picnic tables, playgrounds, train and tube stations, waste and recycling bins, bicycle paths and parking are all commissioned and designed to improve our civic amenity and day to day existence. That is unless of course you are unfortunate enough to find yourself living on the streets.

Without exception every piece of urban infrastructure designed across the globe has, as a key part of its brief – ‘make sure that homeless people can’t use it.’ Moulded plastic seats, closely spaced armrests, steel studs on benches all make it impossible to lie down and are deliberate design decisions. Constructed shelters such as bus and tram stops remain brightly lit well after public transport has stopped for the night to deter homeless people from having a few hours sleep under cover.

The Picnic Table House could be an exception. The table top folds down and is supported on the bench seats to make a roof. A woven stainless steel mattress and protective frame is supported between the legs of the table. Survival kits, packed remotely by volunteer workers or emergency relief agencies can be locked into position under the bench seats either side of the mattress. The survival kits would contain separately food, bedding, hot drinks, a light and a first aid kid. Once emptied a survival pack becomes secure stowage while sleeping'.

While I think the concept is great (as there is so much public infrastructure out there, and even more homeless people), the reality of this type of design could be a brick wall. Physical issues such as the cleanliness of the table, seats and floor might take a battering after it provides accommodation throughout the night, the safety of the homeless sleeping out in a park at night is minimal, as well as the possible conflicts that could arise between homeless people to procure and retain picnic tables for the night could all create more trouble than the concept is worth. Not to mention the psychological impacts of such a concept... sleeping under the table might seem a bit degrading.
But are our current shelters and associated services in Brisbane doing enough? Can we, as designers within our cities combat homelessness in a effective, proactive, and safe way? How can we cater to the needs of the homeless to allow and encourage them to rebuild their lives and self-confidence?

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