Designing against terror

How do we defend against threats without turning our cities into fortresses?

Jon Coaffee

Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

31 August 2018

Protecting crowded places from terrorism is a balancing act between security and liveability, Jon Coaffee writes.

Although defending vulnerable urban spaces against terrorism has long occupied security services, until recently these seldom impacted everyday life and the crowded spaces of the city.

As recent attacks against crowds such as those in Berlin, Nice, Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester, Stockholm, New York, and Barcelona demonstrate, the terrorist threat against Western cities has centred on places where people gather in large numbers. This reinforces how the modus operandi of terrorists has changed significantly in the new millennium with a focus upon the deliberate targeting of crowds with fast-moving vehicles.

But how can we best defend crowded places without radically changing how citizens experience the city?

Guidance about the protection of crowded places from terrorism, released by the Australian Government in August 2017, seeks to mitigate the impacts of terrorism and to “protect the lives of people working in, using, and visiting crowded places by making these places more resilient to terrorism”.

More on this: Protecting crowded places from terror

The advice draws heavily on other countries’ experiences of advancing and implementing protective crowded place strategies, whilst being seen as “a responsibility shared by all Australian governments, the community, and the private sector”.

The strategy utilises the language of resilience to symbolise a protective, proactive and necessary approach that modifies the nature of terrorist targets by lessening their physical vulnerability:

“A resilient crowded place has trusted relationships with government, other crowded places, and the public. It has access to accurate, contemporary threat information and has a means of translating this threat information into effective, proportionate protective security measures commensurate with the level of risk they face.

Given the nature of the areas being defended, such approaches have also had to consider a number of issues that previous attempts have paid limited attention to.

First, issues of risk and timing are crucial. In these areas, the Australian guidance has done something that other guidance often fails to do, by providing a self-assessment tool that owners and managers of public spaces can use to assess their own risk.

This is a positive development, although it does raise the issue of whether such non-trained stakeholders feel comfortable doing this, or feel they have the adequate skills and experience to do it effectively. Appropriate training will be vital here.

More on this: Safety in numbers

Second, it is incredibly difficult to cost accurately for designed-in security, and hence a business case for measures that are solely associated with terrorism can be hard to build.

Moreover, in most cases, developers are not legally obliged to adopt counter-terrorism measures and, more often than not, will fail to do so immediately after an attack.

In times of austerity, the cost of such measures – and who pays for them – is a huge issue. Equally, the question of who is responsible for implementing such measures is a politically sensitive issue. Is it the government? Is it the owners of the crowded place? Is it the planning and urban design community?

Third, we can’t overlook the issue of security aesthetics. Over recent decades, urban revitalisation efforts have increasingly emphasised ‘quality-of-life’ issues that sit uneasily beside concerns to design-out terrorism. When threat levels rise, obtrusive security features – notably temporary concrete or steel blocks – are commonly ‘thrown’ around key sites to stop vehicle attacks, but which are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.

There is a predominant view that security features, where possible, should be as unobtrusive as possible and which has led, in only a few instances, to security features being increasingly camouflaged and subtlety embedded within the cityscape.

How our public places are designed tells us a lot about the type of society we are and the one we wish to live in. In this sense, defending crowded places against terrorism is a difficult task, especially in societies that value freedom of movement, but are seen as under threat of attack.

More on this: Building community resilience to counter violent extremism

Melbourne’s ongoing attempt to defend Federation Square with a dedicated ‘ring of steel’ provides one such example.

Spurred into action by vehicle-as-weapon attacks in Europe, as well as other potential attacks against the square, in June 2017 over 150 temporary concrete anti-terror blockers were placed in and around key areas in Melbourne, including its iconic public place – Federation Square.

The planned security interventions followed hot on the heels of government advice about the protection of crowded places and the allocation of $10 million in the Victoria State budget to increase security measures across its jurisdiction.

Resistance followed, and a counter-protest to the blockers was organised and went viral on social media – #bollart – where the blocks were artistically decorated as a reaction against what many saw as an unnecessary eyesore that risked turning the city centre into a fortress rather than a premier liveable city.

However, a quick fix was deemed necessary by politicians both in terms of the deployment of concrete blocks but also in the eventual strategy of encircling the square with steel bollards. As the State of Victoria premier noted, the speed of the response was crucial, despite the ugly appearance of the concrete blockers and the imminent installation of security bollards: “We weren’t going to wait around for six months or twelve months while planter boxes are built so they look better”.

We live in dangerous times. Advancing proportionate security approaches where interventions are in line with risks is a difficult balancing act. But experience tells us that once permitted, hyper-security tends to become permanent.

If we want a humane and accessible public realm, we can’t let the exceptional become the norm as we seek more adaptable and effective policy for coping with urban terrorism.

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