Out of sight, out of mind – a new approach to mitigating vehicle terror attacks
The terror threat posed to the public has evolved dramatically over the last couple of years. Large-scale, meticulously planned bomb attacks have given way to vehicle assaults that target pedestrians. Concrete blocks and barricades – largely temporary measures – have been installed across the United States and Europe to protect areas of high footfall, national infrastructure and government buildings. But authorities in the U.S. and Europe must assign a greater role to design aesthetics when it comes to specifying the security measures that can prevent vehicle attacks.
In light of the clear shift in terrorist strategy, the issue of protecting crowds of people from vehicles must now be considered a key issue for architects, planners and designers of urban public spaces. We have seen a steep rise in the number of risk assessments carried out in towns and cities across the U.S. and Europe over the last 18 months, covering all types of infrastructure, buildings and events.
This new threat is significantly more difficult to predict. Rather than face the risk of exposure of planning attacks over an extended period, terror organizations are now recruiting, encouraging and facilitating plots through remote supporters. Stripped down to the bare bones of an individual with motivation, intent and access to a vehicle, this type of attack has pared down the timeline between planning and execution to a matter of hours.
In reaction, we’ve seen authorities take a largely primitive and unsophisticated response. Large metal barricades, barriers and concrete blocks have become the default solution, providing an effective but very visible, fear-inducing method of protection. New installations of these barricades at Disney World in Florida, nuclear power stations and government buildings in Washington, D.C., together with those erected across London, Barcelona, Nice, Berlin and Melbourne, are cases in point. In October 2017, a man drove a rented pickup truck down a busy Manhattan sidewalk, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. Since the attack, New York City has spent nearly $65 million on protective measures, including the installation of 1,500 metal barriers in key locations around the central districts.
But while it’s clear cities are taking the threat seriously, this type of protection makes the potential threat very visible to members of the public. This can create doubt, anxiety and create an environment of fear. Complaints from the public about this type of security measure have resulted in negative national headlines – for example, several stories in the U.S. and UK national press stated that new barriers erected at Disney World had turned the tourist destination into “a fortress.”
Establishing an Environment of Fear
Creating this deep feeling of insecurity is a clear objective for the terrorists conducting the vehicle attacks and, as such, those responsible for designing and securing urban spaces should not just be working to prevent them, but fighting against the psychology of terror, too. Stopping the threat is the priority, but addressing the impact of security measures among the public should be given strong consideration by those designing and securing cities from terrorist or criminal activity.
The human psychology behind this issue constitutes a vicious circle, with the higher perception of risk resulting in a greater threat felt by an individual. This theory applies directly to the presence of visible anti-terror security measures, such as the barriers and barricades we’ve seen erected over the last 18 months, which increase levels of suspicion, tension and fear among the public.
This is a reaction that is hard-wired into the human brain. Anxiety worsens cognitive functioning, as our attention is drawn away from everyday life and towards something that is threatening and unusual. In effect, the very action of fortification is increasing the fear that people feel. It is clear that this type of hostile vehicle mitigation (HVM) measure could deter people from using highly populated areas, such as shopping malls, theme parks and sports events, and that change would have a significant negative effect on businesses.
Giving Greater Focus to Design Aesthetics
The threat of terrorists targeting crowded public places provides authorities with a new and complex challenge. The need to create safe spaces offers those responsible for their design and protection a difficult compromise between maintaining the open, livable nature of the public realm and the necessity for security – especially in those cities and places that have built global reputations on the back of their visual appeal. This dichotomy – and our attempt to address the issue so far – does raise a fundamental question about how the inclusion of effective security changes the nature of the urban spaces we share.
Most security measures that we see being installed across the U.S. and Europe make little consideration for the design and aesthetics of an environment and represent a short-term approach when it comes to HVM. Their presence can radically change the nature of these spaces.
In her study Invisible Security: The Impact of Counter-terrorism on the Built Environment, Rachel Briggs writes: “It has been argued that ‘security’ has become the justification for measures that threaten the core of urban social and political life – from the physical barricading of space to the social barricading of democratic society – that rising levels of security in cities will reduce the public use of public space.”
To prevent this, urban planners and designers need to consider how protective measures can be integrated into a town and city center without changing the way people feel about how they use a particular space. As terrorists have rethought their tactics, designers of security measures like ourselves, have had to rethink the way in which we can mitigate vehicle attacks. The key question is how security can be more subtly integrated into the design of our public areas so it is unobtrusive, unthreatening and effectively hiding in plain sight.
Integrating Security Into an Environment
We believe that you can protect people and places from terrorism through landscape design and can do so in a way which is both effective and does not destroy the vibrancy of open, accessible urban spaces. Security should not just be about product specification. On a human scale, it requires a far more considered approach where the environment is created to intrinsically provide the protection people need, without an obvious show of ”defense strength.”
Thankfully, we’re starting to see a shift in how urban planners and designers are tackling this challenge. Europe, and particularly the UK, is taking the lead. The UK’s Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure has ensured that a requirement for aesthetic design is included as one of its six key guiding principles for delivering successful protective methods against vehicle attacks.
This forms part of a more multi-layered approach, which is not limited to simply introducing new objects or barriers to block attacks. Depending on the level of risk – which is often determined by the type of vehicle that can access the area and the speed it could reach – security should be considered at the outset and as a long-term solution. Firstly, designers and planners should evaluate the existing road infrastructure to keep vehicle speed to a minimum, which can include various traffic calming measures, such as chicanes, bumps and restricted-width lanes, together with protected pedestrianized areas or water features that can slow approaching traffic in or close to highly populated spaces, or even prevent access entirely.
As a second step, security advisors should consider reinforced landscape furniture such as planters, seating, litter bins, lighting columns, cycle stands and bollards, which act as a far subtler final line of protection than fences, steel barricades and concrete blocks. Although these products look like regular landscape furniture, they are built with fortified PAS68 certified cores – the latest specification for barriers and bollards to assist in terrorism prevention, which specify a classification for vehicle security barriers and their foundations when subjected to impact. The foundations are built to varying depths, suitable for spaces with limited excavation and depending on the specified risk. Using the strongest specification, a single piece of furniture can stop a 7.5-tonne articulated lorry (equivalent to an 8.4-ton semi-truck and trailer in the U.S.) travelling at 50 mph.
Delivering the Aesthetic Application
Taking an example of how this approach is now being implemented in the UK, Northamptonshire Police has secured the exterior of its new headquarters with landscape furniture that fits seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. Rather than fortifying pedestrian zones, the organization has used a range of bollards, seating, cycle shelters and bespoke tree planters to secure the area.
It’s unsurprising that the increased threat from this type of attack has led to authorities scrambling to protect highly populated areas, landmarks and key infrastructure. For example, after the fatal shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017, the city installed hundreds of bollards along the Las Vegas strip in what officials called a “matter of life and death” to protect people from those who could use vehicles as weapons.
But while security has become a much higher priority when specifying a highly populated space, this is a permanent threat and the solutions used for HVM should be considered as a long-term response. Given the environment of fear, which steel barricades and concrete barriers induce and the knock-on impact this could have on business, it is vital that future measures can be integrated seamlessly into a landscape while providing the necessary protection against vehicle attacks. The focus should be on keeping this type of security out of sight and out of mind.