Public Space in a Time of Fear

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Recent shootings in Orlando and before that Paris, San Bernardino and Colorado have added to growing jitters about random attacks in regular gathering places. Will this impact the design of public space? When mass shootings occur in bars, churches, movie theaters, schools and offices, is anywhere safe? On the other hand, we are currently in a new golden age of public space building, from public transit to parks. Designers and architects are very optimistic about public space design. Can that continue?

MIT scholar Susan Silberberg has studied how urban spaces have transformed since 9/11. She recently wrote that "Jersey barriers, bollards, restricted areas, CCTV cameras and security guards" are now status quo in public areas outside federal buildings and financial districts. Since the Newtown massacre in 2012, schools have employed such security designs as door barricades, bulletproof backpacks, and ballistic whiteboards, while sports stadiums and concert arenas now regularly employ metal detectors and beefed-up security personnel.

But let's not forget this is not new. We have faced many threats in public space -- homegrown anti-government terrorism such as the IRA, Brigatta Rossa and Bader Meinhof in Europe in the 1970s, drug-related crime in Bogota or Mexico City or politically motivated violence in Jerusalem, gang violence in our cities, not to mention marauding invaders going back through the centuries. Back in medieval times we walled our cities to keep invaders out.

But are they effective?

In some instances, specific protections may well be called for, as a result of a federal guideline or professional security assessment. Some security design principles, such as clear sight-lines, may result in less crime.

But Silberberg told DnA when we discussed this following the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino that, "generally they don't deter attacks, what they do is deflect them.” When blocked from one space, people wanting to cause harm will move to another.

Let's not forget also that America's very lax gun laws do mean that people are far more fearful of gun massacres here and of course those can occur anywhere.

There's also the question of whether people want a securitized public realm.

Securitization often succeeds most at exploiting our fear, amplifying our anxiety, and even chipping away at our rights to access public space.

John d'Amico, city councilman for the City of West Hollywood wrote in an email to DnA: “We're talking about how planners are looking at open space with deference to safety, but leaving it as open as possible. It's my sense that everywhere is safe until it isn't. People live their everyday lives. Most places are safe. Most people feel the safety of our democracy. Buildings are only as safe as the politics of the community. Everyone knows this violence is possible and LGBT folks are keenly aware - and still we believe in democracy. And that our buildings are safe. Our homes, churches, community centers, gathering spots.”

So, what does this mean for architecture and planning?

As it happens, we are in the midst of a rebirth of public space design. Whether it's new mass transit lines or parks like the new FAB Park in downtown LA just announced last week, spaces for public gathering are on the increase, certainly in LA.

Doug Suisman is an urban designer in Los Angeles and following the Paris attacks he told us that in recent years security concerns had receded.

"American cities are enjoying an incredible renaissance right now. There has been an adoption of center cities and districts and neighborhoods and a revitalization of public space. And that's not just a nice thing. It's not something that just feels good. It's actually a great economic power because it brings people together, it creates an exchange of ideas, foments innovation and adds prosperity," Suisman said. "It would be tragic if, in the midst of this renaissance, we were to stop it in its tracks out of fear, and succumb and retreat behind walls again."

Photo: The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Photo courtesy The Pulse.