WHEN MOVIES WANT TO CONVEY the idea that it’s a hot summer day in the city, they often include a shot of a fire hydrant blasting a torrent of water into the street, children playing in the spray. Fire hydrants thus present yet another example of a multistable public-space technology. The dominant stability, the most common usage and in this case the purpose for which the hydrants are designed and installed, is their role in fighting fires. They, of course, are used as a water access point for firefighters to attach their hoses, with units spaced out across the city. The use of the hydrant as a way to cool off on a hot day is an iconic alternative stability.
Hydrants maintain multiple additional stabilities. We all know their role in the lives of passing dogs. They are at times tapped to refill street sweepers and other city cleaning equipment. Private businesses can contract with the city to utilize hydrants as a water source for construction projects. The “outlet cap” is the lid that covers over the spout where the hose is attached, and these caps are subject to theft. (This is evidenced by the fact that a chain often secures the cap to the base and that manufacturers offer caps composed of substances with no scrap value.) Police departments access fire hydrants to fuel water cannons used in riot control.
After all the examples of social and political conflicts over public-space technologies reviewed in the previous chapters, it should come as no surprise that similar struggles also play out over hydrants. The practice of using fire hydrants as a source of cool water in the summer is both complex and fraught. In New York City, for example, an open hydrant blasts more than one thousand gallons of water into the street per minute. This is wasteful and expensive. It can reduce the water pressure going to other fire hydrants. And the force of the water from an uncapped hydrant can also be dangerous to smaller children. But for poor neighborhoods, in which public pools may be rare, and where indoor air-conditioning may be unavailable, there may be no other options for avoiding the heat.
To prevent unapproved usage of fire hydrants, cities adopt both legal and design strategies. Continuing with the example of New York City, someone caught opening a fire hydrant in an unauthorized manner faces up to $1,000 in fines or up to thirty days’ jail time. In conjunction with these kinds of policies, cities sometimes adopt hydrant designs that place limitations on how water can be accessed and, importantly, on who can gain access. Put in the terminology of actor-network theory, city governments and water companies will at times delegate to hydrant designs themselves the task of limiting who is allowed to operate a fire hydrant. Put in the terminology advanced in this pamphlet, hydrants can be conceived as multistable technologies with both firefighting and summer cooling stabilities. And hydrant redesigns that place limitations on who can use them can be conceived as restrictionary modifications. Such designs attempt to prohibit hydrant usage in terms of specific alternative stabilities, while continuing to enable other usages (including the dominant usage) by select actors.
What do these restrictionary hydrant designs look like? Basic fire hydrant usage involves first removing the outlet cap. To turn on the water flow, you must twist the “operating nut,” usually set atop the hydrant, and usually requiring a large pentagonal wrench or a wrench that is otherwise unusual. (It is also often still possible to twist the operating nut, albeit more clumsily, with a big adjustable wrench.) Many redesign strategies involve locking off either the operating nut or the outlet cap, usually with a device that requires a special key or wrench to disengage. For example, one restrictionary design strategy is to fit the hydrant with a specialized outlet cap that can only be easily removed with a specific and exclusively available wrench, such as a smooth, dome-shaped cap with no place to get a grip, save for special grooves designed for a particular tool. (This also functions to discourage cap theft.)
But perhaps the central design strategy for restricting hydrant usage is to cover up and lock the operating nut. This can be accomplished, for example, with specially designed covers that fit over the nut and are bolted closed with a padlock. (But fire departments sometimes complain that unlocking such mechanisms wastes valuable time.) A simpler mechanism is a metal cup built around the operating nut, thus requiring a special extended wrench that can reach down into the cup, preventing access with a standard adjustable wrench. A popular option is the Custodian Hydrant Lock, developed by a company called Hydra-Shield. It is a cover that fits over the operating nut and is mounted with a large nut of its own. This large secondary nut rotates freely by hand, independent of the operating nut. But with a special wrench, built with magnets inside, the Custodian can be twisted to engage the operating nut.
If these various hydrant locks can be conceived as restrictionary design modifications that close off certain stabilities, then it is also possible to identify unrestrictionary strategies that are taken up by competing social groups. Unauthorized users who are nevertheless determined to open a hydrant can find ways to circumvent the locks. Even in the case of the Custodian devices, with their thick metal covers and sophisticated magnet locking system, people have of course found ways to hack in with their own magnets and have developed bootleg tools for this purpose.
But with all these dynamics in mind, it is crucial also to consider another approach to the issue of hydrants altogether. In New York City, you can go to the local fire department and borrow a “spray cap” to install on your neighborhood hydrant. Or you can even request the fire department to come install one for you. (In some cases, it seems the fire department’s assistance would be required, such as if your hydrant is fit with a lock, as many are in New York City.) The spray cap transforms the hydrant into a community sprinkler. The volume of water sprayed is of course greatly reduced, only one-fortieth the flow of an uncapped hydrant. And not only are spray caps legal but their use is seemingly encouraged.
And yet not everyone agrees with the wisdom of the spray cap program. For example, during heat waves, the city of Chicago would see thousands of unauthorized hydrant openings. That number dropped to the hundreds after Custodian locks were installed in the 1990s. The stated reasoning that city officials have provided for opposing a spray cap program is that it could have the side effect of encouraging illegal openings. Chicago thus makes its priorities clear: discouraging unauthorized usage is more important than heat wave relief. And it has built these priorities into its infrastructure.
I suggest that the spray cap is neither a restrictionary nor an unrestrictionary modification but an exemplar of a third category. Where the hydrant locks close off a stability, and the hacks reopen that stability, the spray cap “opens up” the alternative stability, securing multiple usages. Let’s refer to this kind of modification as an “expansionary” design modification.
Returning to the issue of homelessness, we can also find possibilities for expansionary strategies in public-space design. Think again of the design of garbage cans. We’ve seen examples of restrictionary design features, such as “rain hoods” and locking mechanisms that close off the cans from trash pickers. If a garbage can without a lock or lid maintains an alternative stability whereby it affords itself as a source for recyclable bottles or food scraps, then the restrictionary modifications of the locks and rain hoods close off that stability. But some designers are working to do just the opposite.
Some garbage cans are designed with a separate and easily accessible rack or compartment for bottles and cans. Sometimes the design makes this function clear, and sometimes it is less noticeable. One example is a public garbage can whose exterior casing features a built-in external deposit rack. In Copenhagen, Denmark, external “deposit shelves” are being added to cans across the city. According to proponents, they allow easy and “dignified” access to recyclables.
After a trial run in 2015 that involved only a small handful of cans, the program has been deemed a success, garnering the support of 95 percent of Copenhageners and setting in motion plans for the installation of five hundred new racks. Evidence that such designs can function on a large scale can be seen in San Francisco, where downtown areas feature garbage cans with separated and accessible compartments for recyclables. And the city does not collect the recyclable materials from those compartments; the contents are collected exclusively on a volunteer basis by people living unhoused.
Of course, such policies and designs that encourage people to pick recycling from cans are noninnocent moves. For example, cities generate revenue through recycling, and the work of emptying cans throughout the city is someone’s job. Offering that work and revenue to others is not without trade-offs, so as always, we must consider our values carefully and weigh out the possible consequences of our policy and design choices. In this case, it is important to keep in mind that recyclable materials from public cans represent a miniscule portion of a city’s overall recycling efforts.
The example of the pro-pick garbage can designs shows that there are alternatives to the trend of antipick can design in particular, and to antihomeless design and policy in general. Some of the protest art projects reviewed herein point this way as well. It is possible to develop an expansionary pro-homeless approach toward public-space technologies and policies. What we need to do is step back and consider the values that should guide our design processes.