Will the Car Reshape our Cities Again - as a Weapon?

Will the Car Reshape our Cities Again - as a Weapon?

*Editor's note: This article was written by Klaus Philipsen and was originally published at Community Architect


In the eyes of some urban planners the automobile was a deadly force on the urban environment for a long time. Figuratively in terms of shaping cities but also literally in terms of high urban pedestrian and bicycle fatality rates. While the premeditated destruction of urban spaces for freeways and parking has never risen to the level of criminal offense, vehicular manslaughter is a law on the books of most States and countries when it comes to gross driver negligence.

Another and newer threat is the vehicle as an instrument of terror. For some time vehicles have been used to break through safety perimeters and hide bombs to destroy targeted buildings. But the vehicle as a bomb in itself,  as an apparatus that does the killing has opened an unexpected specter and elevated the deadly aspect of the automobile to new heights, not only for the people in cities but also for the design of cities.

Even if the statistical likelihood that an urban flaneur would be hit by a bad driver is far higher than being hit by a terrorist, it is likely that the new threat will have serious implications on how we see the automobile and how urban design will respond.

The wave of  unrest that went through US cities in 1968 is an example. Far fewer buildings were destroyed by arson and looting than by the planned demolition of urban renewal. But politicians, planners, politicians and engineers conflated urban renewal and fortification against civil unrest into a period of urban design in which much historic fabric was replaced by new fortress like office and government architecture of the kind that today is almost universally despised as anti-urban. Will the terror attacks via automobile have similar effects on cities around the world?

Already visitors of large events such as the two most recent presidential inaugurations had to squeeze around buses and trucks parked across the access roads to block potential attacks.

Already the gateways of urban festivals such as Artscape in Baltimore were neither art, bandstands or event booths but municipal salt- and dump-trucks idling all day in a sideways position to ensure that no rogue folks with a grudge could abuse a vehicle in a terrible way.

Indeed, all kinds of suicidal or otherwise unstable vehicle operators have begun using their vehicles as weapons, against cops, against their workplace or just to end their lives in a spectacular way. This gives the impression of a ubiquitous threat. Unlike bombs or civil unrest, the vehicle can be be turned into a weapon in the blink of an eye and with the rush of Adrenalin that may have been behind the Charlottesville attack.

Do cautionary measures have to turn open cities into guarded fortresses? Will world renowned boulevards like Las Ramblas, which have been in the guidebooks for great urban design for decades, become a thing of the past? Will we once again lose more urbanity through overblown  prevention than we would ever have lost from the actual threat?

The city as a human centered, friendly place of encounter and discovery in which mingling, exchange, diversity and meeting strangers is not only a side effect of commerce but the allure itself, had a renaissance in recent years, in part by clawing back space from the automobile. This desire for urbanity has turned even smaller cities into attractive destinations. Places that never dreamed of drawing visitors became magnets. There seems to be a hunger for the history and authenticity which towns and cities can offer once they pay attention to their assets. Charlottesville VA is just such a place.

The primary threat from the attacks by automobile is not physical but psychological, not only in Paris, London, Nice, Berlin and now Barcelona, but in every city which celebrates openness and joy anywhere. Terrorists presumably aimed for Barcelona, because its stands for urban tourism and cosmopolitan enjoyment like no other. The goal of the attacks: replace enjoyment with fear.  The people of Barcelona responded with a defiant Catalan slogan: Tinc No Por, we have no fear. It is unlikely that Las Ramblas will be fortified. But will other local governments and their citizenry be as courageous and prudent?

The physical response against attack can be destructive as well, depending on the choices local government will make. Defenses can be more or less subtle. Jersey barriers, large concrete planters are in-your-face interventions conveying an image of fortress mentality and defacing pleasant urban places. An example of this attitude is the new American embassy in Ottowa with endless rows of bollards and tall fences. Ottowa, a city which has kept its own government buildings on Parliament Hill quite open to the public is an unlikely place for a fortress. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the nation nightly light shows on their Parliament building draw big crowds sitting in the open lawn. Protection from the nearby busy street comes via a low retaining wall that has been there all along, no fortress mentality at all.

Subtle defense can also come from retractable bollards that can sink into the pavement. I have seen those devices in action in Berlin's government quarters. For architects and engineers interested in specific devices, the US Department of Defense has published a long "anti-ram" list which distinguishes between active and passive barriers and lists a long list products and manufacturers.  FEMA addresses urban design and terrorism in more general terms since 2007 in its own guide 430.

The ambiguity of any response to terrorism is widely recognized, even in government brochures and papers guiding defensive measures. No open society wants to lose what it cherishes as part of a defense, thus given potential attackers a victory without an attack. Not even agencies with a name as unfortunate as Homeland Security recognize this.

[..] while the main objective of this manual is to reduce physical damage to buildings and related infrastructure through site design, the purpose of FEMA 430 is also to ensure that security design provides careful attention to urban design values by maintaining or even enhancing the site amenities and aesthetic quality in urban and semi-urban areas. (FEMA)

The 2007 FEMA document is a result of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and focuses on building protection. There isn't yet an update that widens this approach to the protection of the public domain in general. The British institute for architects (RIBA) responded to the threat of terrorism in British cities in 2012 with a set of design guidelines that include the protection of public spaces. In their guidelines it is also recognized that defense has a psychological and a physical level.

“It is important that our built environment continues to reflect that we are an open and inclusive society, and that in interpreting these new requirements our buildings do not convey that we are driven by security measures.” (RIBA)

Cities such as London and Barcelona with their own specific history of domestic ethnic conflict terrorism are probably the best precedents to use. In spite of a long history of terror, they have both never given up on what made them attractive in the first place. No American city has a comparable history, yet many of our cities have entire sections that look like vehicular terror is a frequent occurrence. To avoid this kind of overreaction, RIBA's principle of proportionality is useful and important to consider when planning physical defenses:

In considering counter-terror risk response, the concepts of proportionality, relevance and effectiveness are fundamental. There is no need to build fortresses to protect property and interests against the terror threat, nor necessarily even a requirement to install extensive (and expensive) physical
barriers or bollards. There are many ways that existing security and site management concerns can be integrated with those of counter terrorism. And in instances where new measures are necessary these can often be designed with dual purpose in mind.

My hometown of Baltimore has defaced its historic train station plaza to varying degrees with more or less ugly concrete barriers, the most recent version are mostly empty planters. The city's police headquarters, fairly ugly to begin with, are fortified as if the local police would be an ideal soft target. Baltimore's very ornate City Hall is also fortified with planters. Indeed, a car crashed there spectacularly only 100' from the doorsteps and killed a pedestrian before landing on its roof. Its driver had been trying to elude police and came with way too much speed off a nearby elevated urban freeway ramp which acted as a launching pad for the automotive weapon. The National Guard took position at Baltimore's City Hall after the 2015 unrest, proof that the real urban threat may not come from failing to invest in fortifications but from lack of investment in education or poor neighborhoods.

The Baltimore Federal Court House has been a concrete fortress starting with its original design, just like Boston's City Hall going back to the time when beton brut (French for exposed concrete) was all the rage.

Fortification is not limited to government structures. Las Vegas felt that it may be the target of religious fanatics for its sinfulness and is going all out "bollarding" its famous strip according to a report of the Chicago Tribune. The gambler's paradise will install 700 bollards along it at a cost of $5 million in what has been called "a matter of life and death" to protect innocent bystanders from deliberate acts of using vehicles as weapons. Although there is no specific known threat, authorities said recent terrorist propaganda featuring snapshots of the Las Vegas Boulevard cannot be overlooked. Each barrier is designed to resist a 15,000-pound, 30-foot vehicle, officials said. (Chicago Tribune).

Such a response is probably not proportional if an actual risk analysis would be performed. real Las Vegas' pedestrian risks stem from regular traffic. The city is likely also in much higher jeopardy from water shortage or extreme income stratification. Rational deliberation would concentrate resources on long-term strategies to sustainably underpin the core values of our society through education and strengthening of social capital. 

London's and Barcelona's measured terrorism responses show that in the long run a strong civic spirit will do much more than barriers and fortifications. The united civic spirit of diverse cultures is the best western cities can offer. It should not be sacrificed by a fortress mentality.


*This article was written by Klaus Philipsen and was originally published at Community Architect

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