Is terrorism just something we have to get used to? Is it a part of modern life? Or is it possible to reduce the number of attacks taking place (if not eliminate them completely), and minimise the damage and disruption they can cause? When cities and public spaces are being planned, for example, is it possible to incorporate resilience to terrorism into their architecture and design?
Nobody wants to live in “fortress” cities covered in concrete bollards, barbed-wire, CCTV cameras, and patrols of uniformed soldiers with automatic rifles. Perhaps, however, there are more subtle ways to make our cities safer. It may not be possible to ever make a city 100% “terror-proof”, but can we at least improve on what we have today?
On 22 February 2018, our partner think tank, Friends of Europe, is holding an event in Brussels looking at boosting urban resilience to violent extremism. A panel of experts will be looking at how to minimise the risks of lethal terrorist attacks and to ensure a quicker bounce-back when attacks do occur.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Victor, who is worried about terrorist bombings and car attacks in European cities. The recent spate of truck and car attacks, in particular, seems to be a worrying new trend. How can cities defend themselves against attacks made with readily-available, improvised weapons such as vehicles or kitchen knives?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Carola García-Calvo, Senior Analyst of the Programme on Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute. What would she say?
This is very difficult to accomplish and we need to have in mind the balance between security and freedom. Of course, terrorism is always changing and we have to adapt our cities to new forms of terrorism, but we should admit that it’s impossible to cover all the possibilities in terms of terrorist attacks. What we can do is to take some measures and protect critical infrastructure, the most-critical and popular buildings and public spaces, and also to be creative and adapt to new trends and changes. But, at the same time, we have to assume that it’s impossible to cover all the possibilities and have 100% security. Still, it’s true that measures such as bollards on popular streets are needed.
For another reaction, we put the same comment to Jon Coaffee, Professor in Urban Geography at the University of Warwick. How would he respond?
Since the events of 9/11, 2001, the threat of urban terrorism has necessitated that the managers of public spaces consider installing or retrofitting protective security features in order to mitigate the impact of terror attack against ‘soft targets’ that are easily accessible. Limiting the occurrence and impact of vehicle attacks against such locations has primarily been accomplished by putting in place measures that reduce vehicular access to public spaces as well as seek to maximise the ‘standoff’ distance between the road and ‘target’ locations. Most-common amongst such interventions have been ‘barrier’ methods of protective security, notably crash-rated security barriers, steel bollards or simple temporary concrete or wooden blocks. In some instances urban designers and security experts have utilised specialised street furniture for protection.
We also spoke to Chris Phillips, former senior police officer, Head of the UK government’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, and founder and Managing Director of the International Protect and Prepare Security Office (IPPSO) consultancy.
[…] There’s no way to have 100% security, but what you can do, and what we’ve done in the UK in many locations, is to choose your iconic, most-likely-to-be-targeted sites, and do work around those. There’s been a great deal of work already done; if you go to train stations and other iconic sites, it’s very difficult to get a vehicle into those sites.
Of course, you could also see a reduction in the number of vehicles allowed into and around iconic sites across Europe. That would be a good thing, but it’s not always going to be achievable, obviously… Still, there are many firms out there that are building what we call PAS-rated security bollards and barriers, and lots of other equipment which actually prevent vehicles from being able to crash into crowds.
Now, that sounds quite scary because we don’t our cities covered in bollards and barriers. But, actually, these days it’s much more nuanced than that. They’re made into bus stops, seating areas, cycle racks, and so on. For instance, in the main tube stations in London, the central stair-rail is actually vehicle-proof, so if you crash into it the vehicle won’t be able to get into the tube station. So, there’s lots that we can do and that has been done behind the scenes to make our cities more difficult to attack. But we will never have 100% security, that’s for sure.
We had a comment from Rosy, who points out that terrorists have been deliberately targeting tourists and cultural places in major cities across Europe. Is it possible to keep European cities safe and still preserve the cultural look and feel of historic public places?
[…] We should try to maintain the equilibrium between safety and our cultural heritage and our way of life. Mainly because the ultimate aim of the terrorists is to disrupt our way of life, our democratic freedom, and our inclusivity. We should be very creative when protecting our public spaces, while also trying to maintain our normality, our peaceful way of life, with our traditions and our normal co-existence inside the cities. Finally, we should also try to build a more psychological concept of resilience to threats, preserving our freedoms and our democracies.
Finally, what would Jon Coaffee say to Rosy’s comment?
Whilst ongoing urban revitalisation and cultural renaissance [projects] have increasingly emphasised inclusivity, livability and accessibility, the public reaction to the imposition of concrete blockers or bollards has recently stimulated debate about the need for such features in public places and the importance of the aesthetic quality of the public realm (debates which have been especially prominent in Italy and Australia). In some locations we can, however, see security features that are increasingly camouflaged and subtlety embedded within the cityscape, although in many cases barrier and bollard-type solutions still prevail as a default response. Examples of such ‘stealthy’ features include balustrades or artwork erected as part of public realm improvements, or hardened street furniture that still provide ‘hostile vehicle mitigation’ functionality.
How can we make our cities terror-proof? Can we make our cities more resilient to violent extremism without sacrificing their historic look and feel? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!