How urban design can make our cities less vulnerable to attacks


Jon Coaffee is a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick in England and an expert on the impact of terrorism and other security concerns on the functioning of urban areas. We asked him about what can help mitigate hostile vehicle attacks.

Q: Would  you consider what happened in Toronto be be a “hostile vehicle attack”? What, from an urban design perspective, are the hallmarks of such an attack that have to be taken into consideration?

A: Yes, this looks as if it was a HV attack, but probably not a terrorist one. From an urban design viewpoint, such incidents can be mitigated by restricting vehicle access through road closures, partial or full pedestrianization (partial pedestrianization is restricted access for vehicles, perhaps at certain time, while permanent means no vehicles allowed at any time) and the use of barrier methods.

Q: Bollards were the first mitigation for these kinds of attacks. Are there ways to make them part of design?

A: Temporary concrete blocks or permanent bollards have become the default option among police and security services when seeking to mitigate the impact of such attacks. In most cases they are literally thrown across the city in an ad hoc way as an immediate reaction to a recent attack or fear of a future attack. In the medium term, plans can be devised so as to better integrate bollard-type solutions into public realm improvement plan. The recently completed redevelopment of Times Square in New York serves as an example of this.

Q: Can design interventions be almost invisible?

A: In the medium and longer term, stealthier security features can be almost seamlessly blended into the urban landscape or disguised as street furniture. The balustrades down either side of Whitehall near the Houses of Parliament in London, are one example. So are trees in large plant pots that have proved popular in a number of European cities, like Cardiff and Rome, that serve as examples of this type of semi-invisible security.

Q:  Sometimes interventions are disguised as public art. Do these work?

A: Yes, these will work well if they have the same hostile vehicle mitigation functionality (the ability to stop a seven-tonne truck travelling at 80 kilometres an hour) as bollard-and-barrier-type solutions. There are a number of artistic security solutions available on the market now. Some conform to this security standard, while others might not. The issue with more artistic interventions that have the highest security standard is that they will likely cost a great deal more and therefore have not proved that popular.

Q: You say fortress-like design can creates an “architecture of paranoia.” Is this already affecting the psychology of the urban experience?

A: There is some evidence emerging that certain sections of populations feel scared or anxious when they see very visible security features – essentially an agoraphobic response. Put simply, do such security features project a message to citizens that a place is safe and secure and that attacks are less likely, or do security features create a perception in people’s minds that a place is a likely target of attack and is being heavily defended in an attempt to stop this?

Q: Could good urban design have prevented the deaths and injuries in Toronto?

A: Without knowing all the facts regarding the motivation of the offender, it’s impossible to say. Was the site of the attack specifically targeted? In theory, of course, you can secure individual spaces through design means to restrict vehicle access, but you cannot possibly do this all over Toronto without spending huge amounts of money and severely limiting freedom of movement both of vehicles and pedestrians. Moving forwards, new design strategies will probably seek to include security features. If such features are considered at an early stage in the design process, then it is possible to develop solutions that are both effective and which to not embody the look of a fortress.

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