Unfriendly Treehouse

with Mike Yam

“Unfriendly Treehouse” is a satirical visual juxtaposition of what refuge could mean to each of us. From afar, it appears to be an inviting and whimsical treehouse that someone could have built for their child. But a closer inspection of the interior reveals a different story. The walls and ceilings feature elements that at first, could appear to be playful, but actually examples of “defensive design,” a design technique that is employed to prevent people – in particular, those experiencing homelessness – from using public spaces to rest, sleep or find refuge.
Defensive design can take many forms: spikes or knobs on a cement sidewalk; obstructions on top of a metal grate; arm rests on benches; constant bright lighting in alcoves; sprinklers turned on at odd hours; video cameras; to name a few. Unfriendly Treehouse prompts the viewer to ask, “Who do we design for and why?” This design approach not only amplifies the challenges that the homeless population faces, but it reinforces a broader unwillingness to meaningfully address the homelessness crisis and the issue of affordable housing in our city.
The levity in this proposal serves as satire only, to shed light on the serious issue of the city’s homelessness crisis. In the days of COVID-19, Torontonians have been forced to re-examine the importance of public space. For some- one without a home, refuge can take many forms, even if it is temporary. However, the widespread use of defensive design has removed so many of these places and only serves to com- pound the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness. We must redefine our urban spaces to be more inclusive and challenge the images that the stewards of our public and private spaces want to create for this city.
We should not de-humanize people by intentionally designing our spaces to push them out of sight, nor should these designs covertly reinforce larger systemic issues related to economic and social inequity. This design also questions the now annual public art project, the Winterstations Competition, asking the question... who are they for? And urging the visitors to look inwards, then outwards.


A submission for the Winterstations Competition, for which the theme was “refuge”. We’re not sure why the jury members didn’t pick this as one of the winning designs, especially John Tory.