Following in the wake of tragic vehicle-borne terrorist attacks in Nice and London, cities across the world are rushing to implement measures to protect their citizens from the new found threat. Unfortunately, whilst best intentioned, these barriers, gates and bollards are turning our historical cities into frightened battlegrounds where fear overcomes the planning system and ravages our built environment with defensive apparatus unsuited even to the worst of war zones.
Terrorism is an ever evolving threat. After the 9/11 attacks in America, security at airports was tightened to prevent such an attack from ever happening again. Then there were London’s bombings in 2005, leading to the government upping their so called ‘war on terror’. Recently terrorists have taken to a much more unpredictable method of inflicting harm and inciting chaos, by driving into highly populated districts in our cities. This has resulted in the reconsideration of our cities’ security and the installation of ‘temporary’ measures to stop vehicles under the control of those seeking to cause pain and misery.
In the United Kingdom, the turning point was the Westminster Bridge attack on 22 March 2017, when a vehicle was driven at speed down the pavement before crashing into the perimeter fencing of the Houses of Parliament. This was followed by a similar attack on London Bridge in June. Within twenty-four hours of the second attack, the Metropolitan Police had erected concrete barriers along three popular bridges, preventing vehicles from accessing the pavement. At the time Westminster Council said:
People in Westminster need this kind of protective measure – it is sensible and proportionate. We are working closely with the Metropolitan police and security services and are happy to assist on measures like planning and traffic management. The kind of security barrier now in place on Westminster Bridge needs to be part of a permanent solution.
However, the concrete barriers installed in London alongside the steel equivalents in other British cities, such as those in Edinburgh seen above, are not intended to be permanent installations. Advocating their longevity would be to say that there is no other solution to the problem. Architects, designers, engineers and urban planners would have simply bowed to terrorism, allowing our cities to be riddled with reminders of past attacks.
If these defensive mechanisms are to stay, then there has to be a debate about how they are integrated into the wider built environment. They cannot simply be painted in the colours of rainbow, like those on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, to help them be rooted in their context. First, it needs to be questioned whether they actually need to be there in the first place. Other measures like traffic calming, HGV bans and increased tree-planting should all be investigated. Limiting vehicular access in favour of cyclists and pedestrians should also come first where possible, because if vehicles cannot access an area, then they can do no harm. If it is established that no other measures can be taken to protect the pedestrians then there must be a designed solution, where the barrier responds to its location. Unlike the temporary barriers which can avoid the planning process, the new barriers should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other planning application, after all they are a built object in the built environment and should be consulted upon.
Legislation should also be passed to prevent temporary security barriers from becoming permanent fixtures, in order to safeguard the urban realm of our cities. A time limit either for their removal or for the design and installation of a permanent solution should be enacted into law. If there is deemed to be no reasonable threat against an area of high pedestrian footfall then there should be no rationale to keep the barriers longer than they are needed. Just like soldiers and armed Police officers are stood down when the threat level drops from ‘critical’ to ‘severe’ so should unnecessary defensive barricades be removed. It is too easy for temporary measures to be rolled over from one festival to the next with no questions of whether the fixtures are necessary or what impact they have on the aesthetics of their location. This is the case in Edinburgh, where the surge in tourism brought about by the annual Edinburgh Festival in August 2017 warranted the installation of security barriers on the historical Royal Mile and surrounding streets. Some five months later, the barriers remain in place and there appears to be little appetite to remove them on the authorities behalf, even though there has been no threat made to the City and busier, less historical, locations such as Princes Street do not feature protective measures. How can it be, that in an UNESCO World Heritage site such temporary measures can be in situ for nearly half a year without any debate on whether they are intrusive on the historical architecture and urban realm? A building erected without planning permission in the same period would have attracted mass objections and likely would have been demolished already. There is not an inevitability about the longevity of such temporary measures, they should be questioned.
Architects need to come forward and offer a design solution to these pieces of defensive apparatus, which were designed for war zones not for European cities. We have the ability for security features to integrate with their context, be it through their material composition or their form. Just because it is a security barrier does not mean it has to appear as such.
As Theresa May said in her speech following the London Bridge attack, “Everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would” however this needs to be reflected in our built environment too. We are not carrying on as normal when our thoroughfares are riddled with defensive mechanisms. They may have become commonplace today but they should’t be and ultimately don’t have to be. Until we come up with a new architectural solution for defending our pedestrians, then sadly our cities’ public realm will continue to be designed by the terrorists rather than those who pledge to safeguard it.