Fouad Alasiri, Urban Planning Consultant
More and more cities are facing terrorist attacks. Festivals, events and outdoor shows were cancelled in many European cities such as Brussels, Munich and Madrid because of the increasing threat of terrorism. Some train stations, buses and trams were evacuated after being warned of attacks. These attacks prompted the need to redefine urban policies in order to meet new security requirements and procedures. As a result, the concept of open spaces, urban parks and public town squares have become less appealing. Also, some tourists are now thinking twice before planning to visit such cities.
According to Terrorist Attacks Map – Esri, Islamist extremist groups including Islamic State, Boko Haram, Shabab Mujahideen, Taliban, and others in the period from 1 January 2016 to 14 February 2020 committed around 4,121 terrorist attacks causing 31,399 fatalities. According to Mike Phillips, who wrote for Forbes on 17 August 2017: “Terrorist attacks typically occur in cities due to the density of population and the impact created by events in global cities”. In Europe, around 218 people were killed by Islamist terrorist attacks from 2016 to 2018 and most of these attacks occurred in large cities.
Sprawl Development and Social Isolation
The phenomenon of horizontal expansion or sprawl spatial development with its two generations — the suburbs that flourished during 1950s and the exurbs that started in 70s — aimed to fulfil high individual welfare that had been encouraged by private utilitarianism philosophy. Sprawl development became inevitable after decades of low-density development created by suburbs and exurbs. Sprawl development creates social isolation and segregation of the urban fabric. Sprawl development also creates inequality in access to urban opportunities and services. This, in turn, pushes the disadvantaged segment of the population towards fanaticism in exchange for jobs and money. Porous urban fabric provides a fertile environment for Islamist groups to mix with residents of these low-density areas. In many societies, there are growing concerns from Right-wingers, who demand tighter security procedures and some have even pushed for ethnic separation between neighborhoods. This creates additional tension in the urban environment — particularly in the public realm. In turn, this added a significant financial strain on local authorities in cities which have experienced terrorist attacks such as New York after 11 September 2001, Madrid after 11 March 2004, and London after 7 July 2005.
How Urban Planning Can Defeat Terrorism
Heavy spending on security equipment, systems, procedures and investigations has not made cities safer. Terrorist attacks continue to occur — particularly committed by second and third generation immigrants. These attacks take place in large cities, calling into question the negative effects of spatial expansion and how authorities could adequately secure such spaces. This has also weakened groups advocating for social equality issues such as unemployment, housing affordability, sustainable mobility, and equal opportunity. Today, urban and transport designers are incorporating more security procedures into their designs rather than updating urban legislation with the aim of creating a new and more effective urban dynamic.
It is unreasonable to believe that security measures alone will be able to stop terrorist attacks from occurring in cities. There are solutions, however, that complement security measures. Many researchers, urban planners and social activists are now advocating that designing the city as a whole, as well as neighborhoods, can help thwart terrorist attacks — especially attacks that use cars and motorcycles. This makes sense on several levels. First, this balances economic, social and environmental goals on a large scale of the metropolitan area. As a result, excessive horizontal expansion or sprawl development does not occur, which would cause less segregation and isolation among the population. Secondly, this will reduce the need for commuting between neighborhoods, transit lines, roads and streets by creating high-density, mid-rise buildings, and mixed land uses. Instead, neighborhoods will become complete where residents can live and work in the same walkable and bikeable distance and not be residential-only. This concept is being defined as “new urbanism”.
Traffic congestion on highways arising from the total dependence on private vehicles as a result of sprawl development and large distances between urban components, provides an ideal means for terrorist attacks in terms of using the vehicle itself as a collision weapon or using it to escape quickly from the site. While explosive material is very costly and needs skilled people to use it, anyone can drive a car and run over a group of walking people easily. A research paper published in January 2017 by the Journal of Sustainable Architecture and Civil Engineering concluded that most terrorist attacks occurred in the most integrated street segments. It also concluded that attacks occurred more frequently in streets where private buildings and public activities were close in proximity, which is a nightmare for urban designers.
Urban design and Public Space Furniture
Alice Sweitzer, a consultant and urban designer currently based in New York City and Charlie Clemoes, a writer, editor and podcaster from the South West of England, wrote in Failed Architecture on 8 May 2019: “It is no surprise that we see increasing calls for urban designers to imagine new solutions for their protection”. One method to boost security involves the design of streets, squares, public spaces and footpaths. Installing street furniture to ensure cars cannot get close to walkable districts has proven to be effective in preventing terrorist attacks. Street furniture could also protect bicycle lands by completely separating them from vehicle lanes either by tree barriers or art sculptures instead of ugly solid concrete barriers. Another method could be limiting car-access or enforcing a chargeable zone where the driver pays a fee and his/her identification along with the vehicle would be registered.
Because crowded places are attractive targets for terrorist attacks, the need for new designs of public places is essential. This idea must gain social and political acceptance as well. Juan Pablo Garnham, an urban affairs reporter, said in an interview with City Lab on 18 August 2017: “After the attacks that have happened in the last months in Europe, the city of Barcelona installed temporary barriers in public spaces where many people congregate for specific events, such as street markets and concerts”.
City authorities should find integrated and new proactive ways to prevent terrorist attacks. The trick is not to wall-up or close streets in cities but to rethink the design of urban spaces to eliminate opportunities for terrorists to attack. Reducing traffic, increasing pedestrian areas, moving traffic circulation away from buildings, reducing segregation between neighborhoods and increasing complete neighborhood concepts rather than residential uses only are some ways to do this. Also, the spreading out of government buildings instead of keeping them in one concentrated location would also help. These measures should work parallel with security procedures and smart monitoring systems, such as smart CCTV and advanced street lighting. The setting up of walls and concrete barriers will only serve to spread fear and will convert the urban environment into police zones, which is what the terrorists want. There is an important role for urban, landscape and transport designers to play in fighting terrorism. They are the city creators and know best how to protect it.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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