Urban Security Shouldn’t Detract from Design

An unvarying string of security hardened planters looks incongruous and does not enhance the streetscape.

Queries coming into our company show that terrorism is on the minds of architects, building owners, and urban planners. 2017 saw a rise in terror attacks in which drivers deliberately ran people over, and planners are rushing to protect outdoor spaces. Cost considerations weigh heavily: money that goes to security is not available for other things.

Consumers are often confused about the difference between anti-ram barriers and security barriers. Understanding the distinction between these two important offerings can help create the most effective and safe site plans.

Independent testing agencies rate crash-rated or anti-ram barriers. The ratings describe how quickly a barrier will stop forward motion after vehicle impact for different types of vehicles at residential, arterial, or highway speeds. These anti-ram ratings are important for buildings that might be targeted by bombs; the stopping distance should be larger than a possible blast radius. Anti-ram barriers are very expensive because of the engineering needed to guarantee these precise stopping distances, but they are not the only, nor even the primary, way to secure public space.

Security barriers are much more common. These furnishings usually have a core of steel and concrete, installed into the ground for impact resistance. Security barriers protect spaces against vehicle crashes even without rigorously specified stopping power.

Regardless of type of security barrier, it is important not to sacrifice vital streetscapes in the name of security. Bad design calls attention to itself — free people don’t like feeling they’re living in a bunker. Critical reactions to the security planters outside of the US Commerce building, or to the blocky concrete boxes in Australian cities, have often been about the visual clutter they create.

Designers should consider choosing a mix of site furniture that respects both cost and design while creating secure perimeters. Picking objects that are attractive and useful to the public, and then hardening them, can create security in places not worried about explosive payloads. Security-installed bollards, seating, lamp standards, planters, water fountains, bike racks, bus stops, and other outdoor site furnishings are all protective even when not crash-rated. They can enhance rather than detract from their environment.

One thing to consider is that a mix of objects is more appealing than an uninterrupted line and can be placed to allow accessibility to wheelchairs, bikes, and scooters, while preventing car incursion. Views and vistas do not need to be compromised. Complementary or contrasting styles are available for most site furnishings: classical architecture might be enhanced with decorative cast iron lamp standards, bollards, fences, and seating, whereas a sleek modern plaza may lean more towards simple stainless-steel objects.

Governments want to protect their citizens, and cities want to encourage dynamic engagement at the street level. Careful balance of design, protection, and cost can help address all these aims.

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