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.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.