On the afternoon of October 31, 2017, a man drove a pickup onto a protected bike lane along New York City’s Westside Highway, killing eight and injuring another twelve. It was the latest in a string of “low-tech” terror attacks in which automobiles are used as weapons of terror against crowds in congested urban areas. Many criticized the lack of adequate protective security measures in place to keep drivers from accessing the path. The response to this perceived failure was immediate, with the City erecting temporary concrete barriers at pedestrian crossings along the greenway. These barriers will be joined in March by another 1,500 permanent bollards placed around high-profile sites as part of a broader $50 million protective security initiative being rolled out across Manhattan.
While many have applauded the investment from both a counter-terrorism and a broader public safety standpoint, there are reasons to be wary of the city’s securitizing of public spaces in the name of national security. Though fortification might make certain buildings and spaces less attractive as targets, this target hardening often comes at the expense of urban vibrancy, inclusivity, access, and freedom of movement. Architect Jan Willem Petersen warns that though “the purpose may be justified in terms of protecting citizens… the effect of many of these innovations is to monitor, channel and control free movement.”
In cities around the world, the threat of terrorism is increasingly used to justify political policies of extensive surveillance of public and private spaces and restrictions on the use of public spaces. While (arguably) making the urban landscape safer and more secure, the effect of all these security zones has been to fundamentally change the way in which we perceive and interact with the built environment. Geographer Lisa Benton-Short explores the diminishment of public space at federal monuments, describing how sunken walkways constructed around the Washington Monument to prevent vehicle-borne explosives from reaching the landmark also impede access for those with disabilities.
Admittedly, there have been efforts to balance security with aesthetics and access. Proponents of bollards-cum-planters are quick to point to the so-called quality of life benefits that concrete pots and backless benches have for urbanites. Never mind that a core tenet of defensible space–the emptying of space to allow for natural surveillance and to discourage people from lingering or behaving anti-socially–often translates to uninviting, austere spaces with few places for social interaction. And for all the lip service that is paid to the aesthetics of counter-terrorism design, such features often project a fortress or siege mentality. This may have the unintended effect of heightening feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, as the presence of robust physical security features signals that a site is a high-risk, thereby perversely stoking perceptions of fear.
Principles of counterterrorism design and defensible space may have even more insidious implications for the functioning of an inclusive, democratic society. Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University Peter Marcuse demonstrates that a covert result of securing the urban landscape against terrorism has been to increase segregation, with the rich living in secure “citadels” separate from and secured against everyone else and public expenditures for security prioritizing high-value commercial and financial districts.
Take for example the Trump properties, deemed to be high terror risks since Donald Trump assumed the presidency. During the run-up to the 2017 inauguration, the so-called “frozen zone” of counter-terror barricades around Trump Tower extended from West 56th Street between Madison and Sixth Avenues to both sides of Fifth Avenue from West 55th to West 58th Street. Councilman Dan Garodnick (D-Manhattan) described the area as a “war zone… totally unfriendly to commercial activity.” A December survey undertaken by the City Comptroller of 50 businesses in proximity to Trump Tower found that nearly half indicated a “severe” impact on their business while 12 percent reported that they were considering laying off workers, closing, or relocating.
While many instances of anti-terror design are less overt and executed with more care as to how they will impact the built environment and the public’s experience of it, that does not mean that they aren’t there, nor that they should simply be taken at face value. This often silent and unseen terror-proofing of our cities is all the more insidious for its covert nature. Discussions about the role of the built environment in countering terrorism are subject to very little public scrutiny and debate, and yet we blindly exchange our freedom of movement and access for ever-greater security against an unknown and illusive threat.
Would most people not welcome the proliferation of anti-terror design if it means that they are incrementally safer? Rather than speculate on what the “correct” balance might be between providing security and maintaining a free and open society, the aim here has been to draw attention to those spatial politics that often remain invisible or inaccessible behind the closed doors of planning committees and national security discussions. It is true that a city’s survival and success depends in part on the provision of security and the resiliency of its infrastructure. But its success as a thriving, vibrant center depends on things softer than this, and we should not lose sight of that in our quest to protect ourselves within the walls of an armored city.