Can Urban Design Help to Combat Terrorism?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016
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Whilst Australians have been aware of the possibility of a terrorism incident occurring on local soil since attacks in places such as New York, Bali, Madrid and London early last decade, understanding about the prospect of a major incident here has been heighted since the Sydney siege and the arrest of suspects accused of planning attacks in Victoria and Queensland.

Australia ranked 59th out of 124 countries in the Global Terrorism Index 2015, and the government currently ranks the likelihood of an act of terrorism in Australia as ‘probable’ (the middle ranking out of five possible rankings).

Much of the focus of public debate revolves around intelligence and de-radicalisation, but considerations regarding the layout and design of the built environment are also critical. Already, countries such as the US, UK and Spain have adopted guidelines for architects and planners to consider. Many of these have been endorsed by local authorities who have indeed developed guidelines of their own. In November 2015, for example, the Australia-New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee published the most recent 28-page version of the National Guidelines for Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Terrorism.

Nevertheless, it appears that more could be done. Associate professor Douglas Tomkin, the development director for the Designing Out Crime Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, for example, says that whilst the principles outlined in the national guidelines are generally being incorporated into new government buildings and infrastructure, efforts to raise awareness amongst planners and designers outside of this had thus far been limited. He added that more in the way of funding in this area would be beneficial.

A Safe Places publication which the research centre had put out with the support of the police force had been useful, for example, but the university paid for most of it with its own money. Further guidance with regard to issues such as modifying or better protecting glass or better protecting support structures so as minimise damage associated with flying glass or risks associated with structural failure in the event of explosion would be useful, he said.

“Lots of things can be done which are not necessarily more expensive and some of these can actually add to the building anyway, but they are just not known by architects and planners,” he said. “That knowledge is there, but it doesn’t seem to be distributed as well as it might be. There should be stuff on glazing. There should be stuff on retail.

“There is an awful lot being spent on intelligence gathering and bugger all on the things that we are talking about, so I think a little bit of that money that goes into intelligence should be going into that knowledge.”

In terms of basic principles, whilst the range of attack methods favoured by those who would do harm has widened in recent years (as shown, for example, through the Paris shootings), the primary area of focus in terms of buildings revolves around the detonation of explosive devices packed in vehicles which attempt to impact the building at high speeds. That is generally the preferred method of many attackers since the IRA attacks in the 1960s and still the method most likely to cause the maximum number of casualties.

As well as highly sensitive places such as government or major iconic buildings, places targeted could include commercial hubs, shopping centres, stadiums, hotels, car parks, and outdoor dining areas and places of public gathering. Major areas of vulnerability include external areas such as masonry or glass facades or internal areas such as underground car parks.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, but the Safe Places guide talks about creating a ‘standoff’ distance between potentially hostile vehicles and the asset in question, where vehicles are either blocked off entirely or at least forced to slow down. This is achieved primarily through barriers such as bollards, retractable blockers, rising arm gats, chicanes, landscape features (sculpted or clad earthworks, steep verges), decorate planters, large and immovable landmarks (such as statutes or walls), steps in front of buildings or on pedestrian streets, public seating, level changes (such as high kerbs), street signs or furniture or water features.

Aside from vehicular explosions, it can also be a challenge to protect rail lines, major sporting venues and places of large public gathering. These are not only attractive to would-be attackers due to the potentially large numbers of casualties but are also difficult to defend as there are large volumes of people arriving within a short space of time, Charles Sturt University associate professor of Counter Terrorism Nick O’Brien said. After all, he said, it is not feasible to check everybody who gets on a train.

In relation to these areas, O’Brien says measures with regard to major transport hubs primarily revolve around surveillance. For sporting arenas, the erection of temporary barriers where backpacks are checked a short distance from the entrance of the venue can be effective, he said, as these would cause any forms of device to be detonated a distance away from the arena and would thus minimise the number of causalities involved.

In doing all this, however, both Tomkin and O’Brien stress the importance of maintaining – and where possible, enhancing – aesthetic appeal. Success in designing out terrorism is defined not only by preventing attacks such as vehicular intrusions, they say, but also by how the amenity and attractiveness of our built environment is maintained. O’Brien says an example of what not to do revolved around police stations in Northern Ireland during the turbulent times of the 1980s and 90s, where he says buildings were largely made to look like fortresses.

“There is no way you would want to live there; you would probably be depressed just looking at them,” he said. “Good design is uplifting. Bad design is depressing.”

In a paper presented to the State of Our Cities conference last year, meanwhile, Tomkin gave examples of some of the ways in which security had been enhanced without any undue impact upon amenity.

Whereas Metro stations in Sydney had become unkempt following the removal of rubbish bins from stations in the wake of a number of terrorist attacks overseas in 2002, for example, a solution was eventually found using a new type of bin involving transparent walls, a waste bag, narrow openings, an X-ray facility (so the bin could be easily scanned) and a robotic door opening capacity. This not only mitigated the danger of explosive devices being hidden inside bins but also created a more obvious distinction between waste and recyclable material.

In one initiative at the Opera House, meanwhile, both security and amenity might well be enhanced by one idea which involves the insertion of sensors underneath and lighting around the edges of the stone slabs which form the extensive podium surrounding the house. Whilst the lighting would help visitors wearing high heels to avoid the gaps between the slabs, the sensors would alert security to abnormal traffic movements in the early hours when the house is most vulnerable.

Finally, Tomkin stresses that whilst design is important, it is only one part of the puzzle with regard to the overall counter-terrorism picture, which he says must also include intelligence efforts as well as diversionary programs. He said as well as working on issues relating to physical design, the Centre was working with councils and community groups in Sydney’s western suburbs to help assist with issues such as youth disengagement.

Whilst some of the approaches in this regard may not relate to physical design as such, he said architects and designers have skills to offer through their ability to think creatively about how systems and programs could be improved.

“The urban (design) thing is one thing, but for example we are working with councils in the west and community groups that work with run programs youth engagement,” he said.

“We are trying to, from a design perspective, help those communities to find ways in which to stem the disengagement and unhappiness of that young and vulnerable group before they get radicalised. We think that is an important area to look at and design has got a part to play.”

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