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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

City living in an age of hyper-security: it’s not what it used to be

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 24, 2009

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    jersey barriers and the Jefferson Memorial (by: Daniel Lobo, creative commons license)  jersey barriers and the Washington Monument (by: Daniel Lobo, creative commons license)

Several times each day, a military helicopter flies over my house.  It flies much closer to the ground than other aircraft, and it's seriously noisy.  We don't know why, exactly, since in DC you tend just to accept these things, but it started after September 11.  We live in a neighborhood with a lot of embassies, and the Department of Homeland Security's campus is only about a mile away, so those seem the likely factors. 

When I walk through some of the embassies on my way to the metro, there are ugly "jersey barriers" (those concrete things in the photos)  several feet out into the street to keep cars from getting too close.  outside Westminster Palace, London (by: secretlondon123, creative commons license)When I get to the office, I have to pass through security gates to get up to NRDC's suite.  Our beautiful (and recently LEED-gold-certified) building has two entrances from the street, in theory, but one of them is locked to visitors.  Ironically, you can no longer access 1200 New York Avenue from New York Avenue.  Go figure.

I used to go to meetings in Congressional offices or the Capitol with minimal obstruction.  One of the great pleasures of a meeting at the Capitol was to exit from the west front and walk down the grand steps where the inaugurations are held, with a splendid view of the National Mall, Washington Monument and, in the distance, the Lincoln Memorial.  The west front and access to the grand steps are now closed.  If I go to visit EPA's smart growth office, as I do with some regularity, I have to walk all the way around their huge building to get to an entrance that visitors can use, identify myself, go through a metal detector, and wait for an escort to come down to the entrance and take me up to the office.

This kind of thing doesn't happen only in Washington, of course.  It's pretty much everywhere now, though perhaps especially so here because of the many institutions that are here.  In short, one of the ways in which city life isn't what it used to be is that so much of what used to be public is no longer public.  As a result, some of our humanity is lost, to say nothing of efficient travel.

NYC's Civic Center district (by: Secure Cities)And now there's a website dedicated to the subject.  Visit Secure Cities: Security Zones and Shrinking Public Space and you will learn that fully 17 percent of the theoretical "public space" - streets, sidewalks, plazas, and the like - in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco "is closed entirely or severely limits public access."  For example, on the map of New York's Civic Center district, everything in red is closed off entirely; everything in yellow is limited access only.  Go to their site, navigate to the map (or another map in one of their study locations), click on one of those areas, and you can see actual photos of the barriers.

Here's the stated rationale for the site and the research:

"Even before these terror attacks, owners and managers of high-profile public and private buildings had begun to militarize space by outfitting surrounding streets and sidewalks with rotating surveillance cameras, metal fences and concrete bollards. In emergency situations, such features may be reasonable impositions, but as threat levels fall these larger security zones fail to incorporate a diversity of uses and users."

It's true, and we get all too used to it all too easily.  Writing on, Julia Galef notes that "the jury is still out on how these security zones affect the way people feel, act, and interact with each other," or even the degree to which people are aware of them. These are all logical next steps for the research.

  office building, Washington, DC (by: La Citta Vita, creative commons license)  Union Station, Washington, DC (by: Daniel Lobo, creative commons license)

John Hockenberry, writing on in 2006, was less charitable:

"Concern for security in a suddenly uncertain age has certainly reshaped psychology, politics, and design in America, but it has undoubtedly had the most direct impact on architecture. For any public space, security has become a complex, layered concept that covers detailed blast specifications of window glass as well as issues of controlled access, electronic passkey systems, street-level vehicle barriers, and exterior surveillance. Open spaces have become either suspect urban no-man's lands or bleak accommodations to street setback requirements, bristling with barriers and cameras that anticipate visiting trucks packed with C4 explosives, not bubbly tourists packed with cameras and guidebooks. In an era of suicide bombers, places without checkpoints seem almost naked, like windowless buildings or unfenced playgrounds."

Hockenberry's article is highly informative and thoughtful, and I recommend it to those interested in the subject.

The Secure Cities site also contains references and an explanation of their methodology.  It is all new, but they also have the beginnings of a blog where they will provide related news.  The project is headed by Jeremy Nemeth, director of the urban design program, at the University of Colorado - Denver.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Noah KazisJul 24 2009 02:48 PM

So true, and yet so easy to forget as you live in a place for a while. We've become remarkably inoculated against this stuff. I describe a social experiment I performed to try and uncover the militarized space around me at:

Kaid @ NRDCJul 24 2009 03:27 PM

Thanks for stopping by, Noah. Nice post by you as well.

Jim UberJul 26 2009 10:45 PM

I also frequently visit people in the USEPA research lab in Cincinnati, OH - adjacent to the University of Cincinnati where I work. It's a major research laboratory, and the University and EPA used to have joint agreements for using their respective libraries. No more, sad to say. The particular lab within the USEPA where I visit is the National Homeland Security Research Center, where research is devoted to protecting water and air resources from intentional attacks. There is another internal level of security within that area, where I must deposit my cell phone and any other electronic gadgetry, because I may be collecting and transmitting audio and images that that would aid our enemies. I must be escorted personally throughout that area at all times, never out of site.

But interestingly one of the most annoying aspects to me is the cyber security that has been put into place at USEPA, and I suspect many other government agencies and private firms. For example, while I routinely call university colleagues using Skype and have video calls, I can't do that with my USEPA colleagues. Even though they are a research lab, they are prohibited from installing software on their computers, and Skype is one of many web services that is not allowed, because it presents some sort of security hole that the Government can not deal with.

It does seem that the Emperor has no clothes, sometimes.

Nicholas CrawfordJul 27 2009 01:33 AM

I've enjoyed reading your blog since I found it last year.

A couple weeks ago, I visited DC for the first time in about a decade. I had forgotten some of the barriers and was shocked by the new ones. A double set of barriers (concrete and metal fencing) wrapped around the Jefferson memorial for no apparent reason. A single set would seem to be more than enough.

Then the sirens and helicopters, like you mention! I think a congressional hangnail merited a ladder truck, several squad cars, and a lockdown of the street!

Our poor liberties in the name of preserving freedom. It makes me really hope I don't have to live in such a paranoid place. I like the freedom to move around in the midwest!

Lisa BellJul 27 2009 11:24 AM

Kaid, here is a link of crowd management devices used on Inauguration Day.

Kaid @ NRDCJul 27 2009 11:41 AM

Thanks for the comments and link. It's amazing how used to these things we get. And note that I didn't even mention airport security.

The inauguration measures I can forgive - that's a hugely important event with major reasons for high security. And I can forgive a lot of the others, too - I also want to be safe, thanks. But we need to do a better job of figuring out how to be secure in ways that are compatible with urbanity, good design, and human interaction.

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