How can public spaces act against terrorism and still be hospitable?
You must have noticed them: concrete blocks invading our public spaces the last couple of years. They appeared in the aftermath of the terror attacks in several European cities, in an attempt to protect civilians against other vehicle-ramming attacks.
Terrorism has become a reality of our times and addressing security challenges is a top political agenda. However, with our streets, parks and other public spaces evolving durably to meet this issue, we need to think critically about their materiality and the kind of societies they contribute to shaping.
Public spaces as symbols of our societies
One of the specificities of terror is that it does not only bring death and destruction, it also attacks the core symbols of our societies — and public spaces are one of them.
They serve vital functions in our cities and territories. Beyond the mere moving function, streets are places of spontaneous encounters. They are environments facilitating social interactions. In the absence of physical infrastructure to facilitate unplanned meetings, those simply don’t happen. It means that opportunities to make new friends and extend one’s social networks are tremendously reduced, which sociologists have raised concerns about.
A good public space can also be characterized as one that welcomes a diversity of individuals, whose co-existence is effortless. While we should not minimize issues of inequity in public spaces — who are they designed for? How welcoming are they to children, people with disabilities, women, etc. — their egalitarianism is one of the core values of public spaces. Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an american organisation dedicated to helping people create vibrant public spaces, also insists on the need to create places which allow a variety of uses, as it contributes to a place’s vitality.
The presence of public spaces can even be linked to democratic values. They can host political mobilisations — but not only. Democracy is more than just a political regime and can be apprehended as a way of life. As Carole Gayet-Viaud analyses it, public spaces contribute directly to this form of life:
“[…] civil interactions and urban public life as they take place in the street, on public transport or on café terraces, are an opportunity for activities and for forms of attention and involvement that represent the most basic exercise of citizenship: the formation and testing in situ of categories of mutual perception, daily demonstrations of concern for our common world, definitions of our individual responsibilities with regard to the world and the things that happen there, conditions of normality, and criteria for “intervention” concerning and within the common world (Bidet et al., 2015).”
Another thing that is interesting about public spaces is, that their architectural or natural beauty is often not the main reason why people gather there. Of course, it can be a great enjoyment to wander alongside the city’s canals in Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Venice but, in reality you go to a place because other fellow citizens already are there. As American urbanist William H. Whyte explains it:
“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
Therefore, when terrorists randomly shoot innocent bystanders, they do not only attack specific individuals.They also attack what makes public spaces places for citizenship and democratic life, i.e. the presumption of trust between strangers. For people do not a priori distrust one another when they move around in the city. As Carole Gayet-Viaud further explains:
“The daily accomplishments of minimal mutual goodwill, which some today would perhaps rename “naivety”, are consubstantial with the democratic nature of spaces.“
Hacking defensible street furniture
We are not going to discuss the relevance of “defensible street furniture” against terror, but we would like to argue, that they send some implicit signals which, in line with the above analysis, we need to pay attention to. Defensible design can be perceived as an indirect call for vigilance and may change the way we look at each other in public spaces. Instead of mutual trust, there is a risk that objects such as concrete blocks, would harm the suspicion-free sociability public spaces should provide.
In this regard, the “hacking” and twisting of street furniture aimed at securitizing public spaces, appears as more than just a joyful wink. They brought lots of hope as these interventions have contributed to re-invent inviting, playful and inclusive spaces, while taking into account the securisation of open spaces.
In line with the yarn bombing, the guerilla gardening or the critical street art movements, many such interventions popped up all around the world after the first installations of the defensible blocks. In Melbourne (Australia), these urban hacks have led the way to coining a neologism — “boll-art” — and the lord Mayor have publicly supported the transformation of temporary bollards into art pieces. He joked about them though, saying he wouldn’t hire the artists to re-do his interior design.
Other examples can be found in Barcarès (France), where concrete blocks have been turned into giant lego bricks.
In Bergamo (Italy), to just name one more example, big faked gifts wrapped up in shiny red paper were protecting a market in the Christmas season last december.
The institutionalisation of street furniture against terrorism
Those twists and hacks were however a spontaneous and rather temporary reactions. We have now reached a new phase of development, where producers of street furniture have started to design permanent solutions, which integrate counter-terrorism features. This second generation of furniture seeks to address aesthetics issues and bring added functionalities to these barriers, so that people don’t only experience them as such.
As Lene Bjerg Kristensen, a project manager in the City of Copenhagen explains in a Danish media:
“The idea with improving their aesthetics is that we don’t want them to tarnish the quality of the space and we don’t want people to perceive them as barriers. We would like them to impact the pictures of the City as little as possible and we would like them to integrate several functions, so that they don’t only serve as counter-terrorism measures, but also as furniture to sit on or parking solutions, which can contribute positively to the City.” (own translation).
Gigantic flower pots are now installed in open spaces to add greenery to a specific perimeter and concrete blocks seek to serve sitting functions and welcome passers-by for a pause.
In New York’s financial district, the firm Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers replaced fortress-like protections with faceted bronze bollard called “No Go”. The sculptural objects turned into a meeting place for locals.
Counter-terrorism solutions are now becoming a new norm; features one look for in the catalogues of street furniture manufacturers.
They are adding a new type of aesthetics in public spaces. As discussed with ethnologist Pil Beider Kleinschmidt, from urban design practice Schulze + Grassov, these new objects should not swipe away years of research of designing public spaces. To say it differently, in the pursuit of new forms and functions for street furniture, the eye-level understanding of daily usages and practices should not be forgotten.
The optimal use of benches has for example been heavily documented, and landscape architects know, that people would rather sit comfortably against a wall with a great view over other by passers, than sit with a back lean several meters out in the space. In this regard, placing obstructing benches in the middle of an open space, does not appear as a good solution in terms of improving the experience of a public space.
No rooms for compromise when it comes to public spaces
Because urban spaces are so vital for our societies, their design should be uncompromising. Even when integrating counter-terrorism elements, we should aim for creating hospitable, welcoming, inclusive urban spaces, which facilitate interactions between strangers, give opportunities for shared experiences and reinforce a common sense of belonging.
To our knowledge, some solutions bring us very close to this goal, like Tagtomat’s installations. Hats off to these playful pieces of furniture which contribute to bringing people together in the center of Copenhagen:
While many defensible solutions are still rather heavy, we think there is room for more installations of this type, which do not only focus on the beautification of security measures, but seek to add a true humanistic value to public spaces. We could maybe go as far as hope for security solutions that would contribute to activating public spaces…
All the best,