Security has been an integral part of metropolitan areas for millennia. From the ancient walls that surrounded Marrakesh and Munich to the barriers erected during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the threat of urban violence has always been a reality for cities large and small. From a design perspective, though, the risks to city dwellers outside of wartime were hardly worth considering.
“Whenever anybody thought about security, it was an afterthought in design,” says Jon Coaffee, a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick who focuses on terrorism and urban resilience. Though violence and unrest have long been known to occur in urban areas, the relative rarity of these events wasn’t enough to really influence the way buildings and spaces were designed.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed all that.
Almost immediately, the design of buildings and urban spaces began to reflect the new tensions and security concerns of a world in which any place could be a target. Fences, concrete barriers, security cameras, and armed guards became an unsettlingly common sight, especially in dense urban areas.
“First, you saw temporary security quickly go up [in Washington, D.C.],” says Diane Sullivan, director of the urban design and plan review division at the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the federal government’s central planning agency for the D.C. region. Concrete traffic dividers, or Jersey barriers, were lined up in front of buildings and around public spaces to create buffer zones and direct the flow of cars and people. “Unfortunately, there are still some examples of that around Washington, D.C.,” Sullivan says.
Over the years, most of the ad hoc security elements have been better integrated into the design and planning process in the capital. “I think we recognize that permanent security is the reality, and we’ve seen a lot of projects transform what was temporary—the Jersey barriers, the planters that have gone up—into some really good designs in security in the public realm,” Sullivan says.
These security concerns also translated into the design of some federal buildings, both in D.C. and abroad. The headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), designed by Safdie Architects, has a crescent-shaped arcade at the perimeter of the building site that serves as a security barrier, forming an architectural blockade against a vehicular attack. Designers refer to this type of element as transparent security—technically part of the building but built specifically to protect people and prevent damage.
The design of U.S. embassies has also undergone a dramatic reconsideration in recent decades, according to Barbara Nadel, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York and editor of a book on the design of embassies and other high-security buildings. After terror attacks on embassies in Lebanon, Kenya, and Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s, building security became a high priority in unstable areas. The 2001 attacks in the U.S. only underscored the need.
“Depending on the part of the world, such as Afghanistan versus London, the site and building design reflects local conditions,” Nadel says. “Sometimes visible security is necessary and desirable.”
Even for lower-risk sites, there are considerations such as how far back a building should be set from the street and what type of surveillance systems and building materials are used. “We’re seeing more integration of technology with the building envelope,” says Michael Sherman, director of the policy and research division at the NCPC. “We’re seeing more use of blast-resistant material that would allow you to have less setback requirements.” More careful use of materials, he says, can help some of these projects avoid embodying what he calls “a bunker mentality.”
Increasingly, security design is moving beyond the building and out into the landscape. “The threat has changed. It’s constantly evolving,” Sullivan says. “Post-9/11, right away we were protecting buildings. Now as we have projects submitted to us, it’s really protecting public spaces—people in lines at museums, for example. Where you have a lot of people congregating at once, it’s a bigger risk.”
Landscape architects are playing a more dominant role in designing safety and security elements for these kinds of spaces. Sullivan points to the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where protective elements are seamlessly integrated into the landscape surrounding the museum in the form of planted gardens, fountains, and embankments. “I think you’d be hard pressed to even know where the security is,” Sullivan says.
Coaffee also points to New York’s Times Square, which was closed to vehicular traffic and given a redesign by the architecture firm Snøhetta. Sculpted granite benches emphasize its pedestrian-only status while also serving as protective barriers. And in Paris, ahead of the city’s turn hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024, plans are underway to use landscape design to eliminate the risk of vehicular attacks around the Eiffel Tower.
This blending of security into the urban environment is adding layers of safety to public spaces, but it’s also a cause for some concern, Coaffee says. “It becomes normalized. It becomes fixed in the cityscape and in peoples’ experiences of urban spaces to the point where it’s not noticed anymore,” he says. In England, for example, a vast network of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been shown to capture images of people dozens or even hundreds of times a day. Favored by police, these systems have become so ubiquitous as to affect the physical design of cities. “There are examples of whole public squares being redesigned so that the sight lines of CCTV are very clear and visible,” Coaffee says.
It’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away, according to Coaffee’s new book, The War on Terror and the Normalisation of Urban Security, out later this year. The ethics of these forms of urban security remain troubling. “It may be acceptable to politicians to put in place fortress-style security, but whether it’s acceptable to the general public, I think that question’s never really been addressed to any great extent,” he says.
While he’s conscious of government overreach, Coaffee is also an advocate of improving the way security is designed into spaces, and has been teaching these approaches for more than 20 years. He argues that design professionals need to be better trained in understanding security risks and working with security advisers from the early stages of the design process to determine what type of security is needed. “I don’t think what we want to say to designers is, ‘You have to do all this fortressing,'” he says. “It’s about thinking about it when it’s appropriate and it being in their palette of tools and considerations.”
In Washington, D.C., these considerations are becoming more common, and the design responses more elegant. In a place so concentrated with the functions and functionaries of the national government, strong security measures are often unavoidable. “It’s a balance,” Sullivan says. “This is a city that’s supposed to be for the people and open to the people, and this is something that we struggle with all the time.”
In the post-9/11 city, that balance has become a bigger concern for designers and planners. But even in the face of deadly attacks and terrorist threats, there are limits to how much security design can provide—and also how much security people want.
“You accept a certain amount of risk in the decisions you make,” Sullivan says. “We can’t fortify and put up perimeter security absolutely everywhere. No one would want to live in that city.”