Security Is a Design Problem

Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, Schwartz/Silver / Tex Jernigan, copyright Zahner

Equitable access to public spaces is central to our civic life and democracy. We can’t let the threat of terrorist attacks or mass shooters turn our public spaces into inaccessible fortresses. To protect our people and economy, cities instead need thoughtful, designed security solutions that balance the need for openness with the management of risk.

At Open to the Public: Rethinking Security & Access in Public Space, an event organized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) at the Navy Memorial museum in Washington, D.C., Roxanne Blackwell, co-interim CEO of ASLA, said “it’s important that we live safely yet still feel free.”

In a presentation, Susan Silberberg, an urban designer and lecturer at MIT, said there is ample research on what makes good public spaces — they are designed for the human scale, beautiful, create connectivity and access. “So how does the need for security impact that?”

With her graduate urban planning students at MIT, Silberberg decided to find out. Undertaking a study of security measures in the Boston Financial District in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, she found “there was loss of use of some public space.” Slowly, “temporary, permanent, designed, and ad-hoc” security barriers accrued over time to “erode movement through public spaces.”

Silberberg said there were mass shootings in 253 American cities in the first 8 months of 2019 alone. Most of these occurred in “third places,” which are defined as neither home or work. These are the public and private places where people congregate.

One result of these attacks is a growing security arms race among cities. There is the perception that “if New York City is more secure than Boston,” for example, companies may be more likely to move operations there. “There is a sense of peer pressure.”

Lawyers want to reduce any liability, so more and more security measures go in. Security is also “big business.” Public and private entities are “blitzed with security products,” and the message from them is “if you don’t do this for your clients, you are at fault.”

For Silberberg, the issue is there are many actors working on securing the public realm but not in a coordinated way. The result is a hodgepodge of private and public measures that reduce access.

Instead, she called for “all security measures to improve the design and experience of public spaces.” As an model, she pointed to the Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, which is both safe and aesthetically appealing (see image above).

Other recommendations included: pedestrianize the public realm to reduce car access, so that terrorists can’t drive vehicles or vehicular bombs into crowds. Use street ambassadors, like you find with some local business improvement districts, who can keep an eye on things, rather than unwelcoming security or police officers. Design spaces that invite engagement through public art and technology, which encourage people to notice their surroundings and other people more.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director, Federal Protective Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of guarding one million federal employees across the federal government. Cline said in the past year there have been some 130 attacks on federal buildings, resulting in more than 100 injuries. Some 50 serious plots have been averted.

In the Pacific northwest, political demonstrations turn violent. “Some 30-plus climate change related protests have resulted in demonstrators throwing rocks at windows of federal buildings.” In the Northeast, the primary threat comes from foreign terrorist organizations. And across the country, there is a threat from lone shooters who are angry with the government for some reason, perhaps for a denial of benefits.

For each federal government facility, which are managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), his team will conduct a threat assessment and determine the appropriate security needed. Level 5 security is reserved for facilities like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, while level 1 could be applied to a local Social Security Administration or postal office.

Cline said particularly in Washington, D.C., “we can’t help people by just setting up more jersey barriers; we need better solutions. People are coming to D.C. to see democracy.”

Jersey barrier / Wikipedia

Landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, presented some of those smart design solutions that both ensure access and create safety.

Working with architects at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and artist Maya Lin, Reed Hilderbrand has been designing a new 14-acre site for the GSA, which will be used by the U.S. Department of Transportation: the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The security assessment called for a 75-foot set-back for the building, which had the effect of creating a suburban campus-like environment. Reed Hilderbrand is using that ample space to create a welcoming park. In addition to a range of “clever tactics” and hardened access points, security comes through undulating mounds that depict the Doppler Effect, crafted by artist Maya Lin. The mounds were in part designed to block anyone trying to attack the building with a vehicle.

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin
John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin

Hilderbrand said the landscape is purposefully “multi-functional.” And the stringent security requirements, which he couldn’t discuss in much detail, were accomplished through a two-year multidisciplinary design process.

Another project of Reed Hilderbrand’s that artfully integrates security is a new master plan for The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, an important site that is a center of civic life in a city of 1.5 million, receives some 7 million tourists annually, is a place that is “central to Texans’ creation myth” and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Alamo is currently “compromised and unwelcoming.” Half of the original mission complex has been “eroded” by surrounding development; the historic core itself has been “mistreated over the years.” A 20-year process involving many stakeholders with competing interests has finally culminated in a plan that has been approved by the San Antonio City Council and Texas General Land office.

The new plan for The Alamo will expand the boundaries of the historic precinct, ban vehicle traffic in front of the mission and garden, instead turning Alamo Plaza Street into a pedestrian-only plaza. Pedestrian traffic will be channeled via the surrounding streets and Riverwalk. A gate at the north edge of where Alamo Plaza Street now is will be closed during the day but open at night.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

Behind the garden, Reed Hildebrand calls for 4-feet-tall walls that will be hidden amid greenery to lessen their visual impact. Crossing the streets and buildings surrounding The Alamo, the boundary of the original Mission will be preserved through a slight depression that lowers the entire historic landscape. Access will be provided through sloping walkways and steps. For Hilderbrand, the visitor experience came first and security is designed to enhance that experience.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand
The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

In a Q&A moderated by Jess Zimbabwe, principal at Plot Strategies, conversation veered towards the now-ubiquitous use of cameras, as well as the growing use of artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technology, and what these technologies mean for privacy in the public realm. As protesters in Hong Kong use face masks, hats, projectors, and other tactics to evade identification by street and building cameras, the question is how to balance security with personal privacy.

According to Kline, the department of homeland security isn’t using facial recognition technologies in federal buildings. But that doesn’t mean that isn’t coming sometime soon. The United Kingdom and Israel are currently leaders in “sophisticated invisible security,” and other countries are studying how they do it.

In some cases, the technology-based security measures are integrated into other systems. For example, London’s congestion pricing system, which uses cameras to track vehicles that enter into London’s inner core and then charge vehicle owners for access, is really “about monitoring vehicles” and tracking people, said Zimbabwe.

Silberberg then made a final point worth highlighting: “we must stop reacting to the last threat.” Many cities design and implement security solutions for what crisis has just happened, perhaps overreacting and reducing freedom of movement in the process. As communities navigate a world of changing threats, public and private partners must work together to create “flexible and adaptable public spaces” that can meet shifting security requirements.

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