How security is transforming public space

Temporary security measures often become permanent. Image: Getty.

The recent security <a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/us/series-of-secret-service-blunders-e... href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/us/series-of-secret-service-blunders-e... "="">lapses at the White House have brought to the forefront the old question of how to effectively secure public spaces. As officials weigh increasing perimeter security and installing additional checkpoints at public areas adjacent to the White House, it’s worth examining the effects of counter-terrorism measures on our urban experience.

Jersey barriers, bollards, restricted areas, CCTV cameras and security guards have transformed public space in many cities. At the same time, planners and urban advocates strive to balance the desire for safe cities with the need for vibrant and connected public spaces. One hallmark of a democratic society is the ability of citizens to gather and move freely about the city.

Balancing security and civility

Community participation in the planning and design of public areas results in safe and vibrant spaces. There is evidence that non-invasive methods such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), which implements, in the design of spaces, strategies like the creation of good sightlines to put “eyes on the street,” may translate into less crime. But security measures imposed upon people can also detract from public spaces, discouraging gatherings, eliminating services, or even making public space more dangerous.

Some security measures are the result of federal security guidelines and professional threat assessments. Others seem to be reactionary: for instance when officials installed temporary French barriers around Boston’s City Hall Plaza after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Designed as crowd control devices, they cannot withstand vehicular force or attempted truck bombings. The result is a cordoned-off plaza that simply blocks pedestrians from accessing a vast public space that already has trouble enticing people. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings have forced us to focus on security in public spaces once again. But security should not be the sole consideration in how our public spaces are designed and used.

Cities function well when people can enjoy social and physical freedom. Unnecessary security measures can erode our right to access city spaces, exploit fear and insecurity and promote feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. This sense of vulnerability leads to increasing security measures, creating a vicious cycle in which more is always perceived as better.

Security machismo

My ongoing research on counter-terrorism measures in Boston’s financial district and government center starts with a fundamental question: what were the motives for securing public spaces in the first place?

An environment of pretext securitization and pretext responses – in which “pretext” describes false responses to security threats – is one culprit.

In some office towers, clients compared the secure company headquarters in New York City to the Boston satellite office and wondered why there was such an open door in Boston. This comparison prompted some building personnel to needlessly upgrade security and perimeter protection to assuage fears.

A focus on maintaining market edge has caused building owners to install security measures and block public access to stay current with the competition. If your neighbor has the latest in security, it’s easier to market your building if you have the latest in security too.

The need for a high level of securitization is often about prestige. In my Boston field research, public officials and building owners boasted of being a “top-ten target,” a kind of security machismo that promotes bigger and better security upgrades wherever possible.

This perceived need for security also satisfies the desire to deflect to another target. Many buildings sport “hardened” perimeters as a tool to entice would-be terrorists to look to the path of least resistance and shift terrorism strikes to neighboring buildings.

Security for profit?

To secure necessary insurance and financing, developers and designers drop to the drafting room floor amenities such as an atrium, a rooftop garden and ground floor retail. In the search for profits, manufacturers of security equipment and the security assessment industry call the design shots. Without expertise in security assessment, owners, architects and landscape architects turn to equipment manufacturers and consultants to provide design specifications and advice. The security industry is happy to step in.

In these scenarios and others, design follows the money. The Department of Homeland Security enjoyed a 301% increase in spending over the decade after 9/11. DHS security funding creates security needs – the result being that every problem can have a security solution.

Alleged security threats also allow some companies to perniciously reclaim privately owned public space for private use and profit. Just two days after 9/11, the owners of the John Hancock tower in Boston decided to permanently close the top-floor Hancock Observatory, the closest thing Boston had to a museum of the city. The decision was never revisited, even as public access was reinstated in high-risk structures such as the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty in New York City. The public lost an iconic public space while the building owners gained valuable class A office space.

More than a decade after 9/11 it is fair to say that when security measures come, they tend to stay. It is not clear that any security interventions have been dialed back. The prevailing wisdom is still that more is better. And who’s to argue? No one wants to be the one who made the bad decision. An obsession with security creeps into the public realm and into privately-owned public spaces and becomes white noise. But this new normal has more to do with private interests than public security agendas. The Conversation

Susan Silberberg is a lecturer in urban design & planning at at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the Founder and Managing Director of CivicMoxie, LLC, a planning and urban design group. She received funding from The Boston Society of Architects Research in Architecture Grant Program to support her research on the securitization of public space post-9/11.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.