Security, Liberty and Architecture: Creating Safe—and Safe-Feeling— Public Spaces
Open societies often struggle to balance values that can conflict with one another. Rights and responsibilities, freedom and equality, cohesion and diversity, openness and order are a few examples. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one of the most prominent such struggles is the re-balancing of security and liberty.
Much of this fight is taking place behind the scenes, in political battles over the powers of law enforcement, legal arguments over automatic license plate readers’ data collection, executive orders on the detainment of terrorism suspects, or hacktivist protests to it all by groups like Anonymous. But I’d like to focus on one of the most visible aspects of this shifting mindset: what does a safe and secure public space look like?
In the United States prior to 9/11 fear of terrorism was almost nonexistent, and public spaces had far less security than they do today. Much of current security was installed rapidly on an ad hoc basis, resulting in airport screening systems established in awkward places and ugly jersey barriers placed around all kinds of sensitive buildings. All around the country, fueled by a flood of homeland security funding, public spaces became more and more securitized, usually according to assessments of criticality and threat.
A decade has now passed, and social scientists are asking questions about the effects this security is having on us, individually and as a society. Because we are relatively new to threats in the public sphere many are looking to the UK for lessons. Having endured bombings annually for a generation during the Troubles, British architects, security planners and sociologists have a lot to teach.
Early on, the British did much as we have done since 9/11, installing barriers and bollards anywhere they might save some lives. But as the years passed, their approach became much more nuanced as they realized that over-securitizing public spaces drives away the public, which increases crime. This appears to happen in part because security features lead people to believe that crime is commonplace and increasing even if it is rare and decreasing, and in part because simply seeing security features causes anxiety and discomfort.
This realization has led to a number of projects in cooperation with the government and academics like Jon Coaffee that try to determine how best to design public spaces so that they are both safe and welcoming. They’ve published many documents, both instructional and intellectual, that might be useful for American security planners. In particular, Coaffee describes a spectrum of visibility / hidden measures that should be considered to achieve the right level of security while maintaining the character of place.
When well implemented, these ideas can lead to security features that are not only unintimidating but truly add to what a place has to offer. One example is the new US Embassy in London, currently under construction and shown in a rendering at the top of this article. It stands in stark contrast to the current embassy (shown in the smaller image). The tiered gardens and water features will make working there or walking by a much more comfortable experience, but they are designed to provide even better security than the maze of fences and barriers around the building’s predecessor.
Perhaps the best example of this theory put into practice is Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal football (soccer) team, which includes features like the auto barrier shown at right. More effective than bollards or jersey barriers, this security tool has itself become a draw with fans often going out of their way to get their pictures taken with it. Coaffee and his allies point to Emirates as proof that one can implement measures that meet security goals without the negative effects that so often come with an overt security presence.
Britain first began suffering car bomb attacks from the IRA in 1969 (1971 on the British mainland) and it took decades before universal measures were in place to combine crime prevention, counter-terrorism, and social benefits in public space design. Today, in addition to just providing guidance like that linked above, every local police department has an architectural liaison officer to assist with just this on all public and private projects at no cost to builders. By linking architecture and urban planning with law enforcement and security planning, they are working to ensure that future construction will be both safe and welcoming.
The construction of public spaces can take generations, but we in the United States need not wait a few decades to get started on planning for what we want those spaces to look like in the future. We should learn from the experience of the UK, adapting their lessons and their tools to our own urban design initiatives. Doing so will help ensure that the public square of tomorrow will do more than just be safe; it will feel safe.