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, HurwiczRocks, CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

New Video Series: Constructing Landscape

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.

According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”

Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).

Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.

Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.

Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.

Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.

Videos include interviews with:

  • Jose Alminana, FASLA
  • Diana Balmori, FASLA
  • Julie Bargmann
  • Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
  • Shane Coen, FASLA
  • David Fletcher, ASLA
  • Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
  • Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
  • Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
  • Tom Leader, FASLA
  • Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
  • Laurie Olin, FASLA
  • Marion Pressley, FASLA
  • Chris Reed, FASLA
  • Ken Smith, FASLA
  • Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
  • Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
  • Thomas Woltz, FASLA

And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.

New Museum Brings Hope of African Americans to the National Mall

National Museum of African American History and Culture / Jared Green
National Museum of African American History and Culture / Jared Green

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a breathtaking new presence on the National Mall. Found just northeast of the Washington Monument, the museum, which opens September 24, makes accessible the almost-unimaginable journey of African Americans over the past few centuries: from the horrors of slavery, to the long fight for equality, and, finally, transcendence through spirituality, and extraordinary cultural and artistic achievements.

Over 100 years in the making, the museum cost $540 million, with half of those funds raised from over 100,000 contributors. And some 40,000 Americans contributed works that will be included in the museum’s permanent collection, explained museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the media preview.

The museum opens at an opportune time, when race relations are at a new low. As Bunch said, “race and cultural differences now dominate the national discourse. Racism is not a thing of the past. But we believe this museum can be a place that brings people together. This museum can help advance the conversation and be a beacon of what America can be.”

The building itself makes a richly symbolic statement. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, created a dramatic 200-feet-by-200-feet box, topped with a corona inspired by the “three-tiered crowns used in Yoruba art from West Africa,” where many African American slaves came from. The corona is covered in an “ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice” inspired by the ironwork created by American slaves for estates in New Orleans, Charleston, and other Southern cities.

The building is well-served by a thoughtful and somewhat understated landscape by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN). Designed by Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, and Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape treats the building as a pavilion in the broader landscape of the National Mall and aims for maximum circulation.

Walking the site with Abela, he explained how visitors can find African American themes of “resilience, spirituality, and hope” symbolically represented in the landscape. On the north side, visitors enter off Constitution Avenue, where they will see a black granite wall that provides the visual base of the site and doubles as a secure barrier. The granite wall is thick here — about 6-feet-wide — and is black to represent the canal water that once flowed through the site. Another possible interpretation of the material: African Americans’ labor is the foundation upon which was built the National Mall. Abela explained how Rugo Stone highly polished the edge of the granite so that it glimmers in the light, creating a horizon that underlines the building.

Black granite wall / Jared Green
Black granite wall / Jared Green

As you walk up the paths on the north side, you will find they are like arms extending out in an embrace. Where the arms meet in a central point, Abela highlighted, is the place where visitors can either decide to veer right and head to the Washington Monument, or veer left and enter the building’s north entrance.

National Museum of African American History and Culture / Smithsonian
National Museum of African American History and Culture / Alan Karchmer Architectural Photographer

Within this embrace, there’s an oculus, which shines a shaft of light into a “contemplative court” set in subterranean galleries that delve into the darkest times of slavery. “It’s a lantern, a welcoming and safe place.” As such, the landscape gently leads you up to the oculus on the surface.

Oculus / Jared Green
Oculus / Jared Green
Oculus interior concept / David Adjaye and Phil Freelon Group
Oculus interior concept / David Adjaye and Phil Freelon Group

And near the embrace, there is a symbolic reading grove, a place where a group of school kids or a few families could gather and talk about the experience about the museum. GGN designed this grove to mimic the “brush arbors,” the community gathering places, many early slave and African American communities would create, even before they had built a church.

Reading Grove / GGN
Reading Grove / GGN
Reading grove / Jared Green
Reading grove / Jared Green

Walking along the western edge of the building, there is a lawn and rows of trees, which are reflected in the building’s wall of windows. Abela said over 100 trees were planted, including elms, oaks, beeches, magnolias, gingkos, sassafras, and cherry trees. “The Smithsonian wanted as much diversity as possible.” In coming decades, those trees will grow to enshroud the building, softening its boldness. And throughout the lawns, some 400,000 crocuses were planted. One of the first plants to bloom, they represent hope for the future.

Trees reflected in the building / Jared Green
Trees reflected in the windows / Jared Green
Trees in northeast corner / Jared Green
Trees in northeast corner / Jared Green

On the eastern edge of the building, there is a staircase leading down to the lower level, which is an emergency exit for the auditorium, a separate entry into a loading dock, and bicycle parking for staff.

The southern entrance of the park, right off the National Mall, is where the Smithsonian expects about 70 percent of visitors will enter. There is a grand porch, another reference to African American culture, with a striking overhang providing shade over a fountain, which wasn’t working for the media preview, but will bring another cooling aspect during D.C.’s sweltering summers.

South side aerial / Anthony Lyons
South side aerial view / Anthony Lyons
Front porch / Jared Green
Looking up at front porch / Jared Green

Multiple paths invite visitors in from Madison Avenue. Once they pass through the gates, there is a sense of passing through a threshold into a new environment.

One of the southern entrances / Jared Green
One of the southern entrances / Jared Green

The southern edge of the park is richer with small plants and shrubs, which form a rain garden that mute the effect of the stark black granite walls.

south side entrance / Jared Green
South side wall and garden / Jared Green
south side rain garden / Jared Green
South side rain garden / Jared Green

A note on sustainability: More than half of the LEED Gold building is buried below ground, which means lower energy use. And below the structure, there are two large cisterns that collect rainwater that hits the building, so that it can be reused for irrigation.

Through the landscape architecture, Abela explained, “the story of African Americans are made part of the national story,” as represented by the expansive National Mall. “It’s a site that’s connected to the greater landscape beyond.”