Diplomats and designers discuss: How can we protect our cities from terror attacks?

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Diplomacy and design are both science and art, technical professions that adhere to the rules of politics and physics but celebrate charisma and creativity. The two disciplines are rarely in conversation, lacking common language and institutions. Nonetheless, diplomats and designers increasingly take up the same questions and challenges from climate change to, in the case of this conversation, terrorism.

Violence has changed. Since World War II interstate violence has declined, replaced frequently by civil wars and terrorism. Between 1993 and 2000, for instance, the number of terrorist attacks in cities more than doubled. The city became what the airplane had been in the 1980s: the target of choice for accessibility, numbers, and propaganda. This is a challenge for cities, nation-states and international organizations, such as the United Nations, where David Scharia is Chief of Branch at the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate.

We have grown accustomed to heavily armed police and gendarmerie in places like New York’s Grand Central Station and the narrow streets of Paris’s Left Bank. As part of the long history of securing the city, we have also become accustomed to winding our bicycles through the bollards that prevent vehicles from approaching buildings or entering public spaces. Keeping public spaces at once public and safe is among the issues Claire Weisz thinks about as Principal-in-Charge at WXY, a design firm in Lower Manhattan.

Together, we talked about cars-as-weapons, trees-as-safeguards, and the hope that cities avoid the fate of airports.

Ian Klaus: Some have called this era the age of terror. Others have called it the newest urban age. The two trends are increasingly intersecting. From your seats as diplomats and designers, how do you see it?

David Scharia: We are seeing an almost unprecedented impact from terrorism. At the UN, more than 100 countries are directly affected. On the issue of urbanization, two trends are very worrying for those involved in counterterrorism. The first is terrorist organizations’ direct interest in and threat to urban spaces. ISIL and Al Qaeda have found a weak spot: civilian or soft targets that are not heavily protected, and that probably could not be so without changing our way of life.

They’re trying to hit such targets. In Barcelona, in Berlin, in London, in New York City and in Paris. Some cities have taken steps to mitigate the consequences of truck attacks or to make it more difficult for terrorists to reach those targets.

The second trend we’re seeing is how the design of cities can either facilitate integration or, by contrast, be a breeding ground for marginalization. For example, consider from where in Europe people left to Syria and Iraq. The numbers can be hundreds from one country, but when you zoom in, you see that actually eight, or ten or even 20 left from the same neighbourhood. There is the possibility that the neighborhood itself was closed either by design, or by the people who lived in it, or by the outer community.

IK: Yes, urban terrorism doesn’t just happen. There is the so-called “life cycle of radicalization”. People who address violent extremism work on a broad range of issues, from religious belief to family structure and the role of women as leaders in the community. In a world where the wall has again become a potent symbol, design has a role.

Claire Weisz: Cities have had an economic resurgence. People are returning to them from suburban areas, which are typically more controlled environments, to meet other people and to find business and education opportunities. Cities are great mixing grounds. The great civic common is then also the target. And then you ask a question about design: should we be encouraging fewer people to go to the civic commons, to go to our great places and spaces?

I would argue no, but we need to recognize that, just as planes were weapons in 9/11, cars are now weapons. One of the biggest problems is that everyone is fighting the last war, in terms of urban design. Urban design is thinking retroactively. Police departments and counter-terrorism experts could be asking urban designers to act proactively.

We should look at pedestrian access. Look at embedding technology in buildings, making more gateways so that even guns or bomb sniffing devices can be used. I think urban centres are the perfect place to embed much more technology. People are being watched anyway, but maybe they’re being watched for the wrong reasons. We are watching for the wrong things.

DS: This is not a phenomenon that is likely to disappear. The new normal will probably be that we have to protect our cities from attacks that can happen anywhere. The question is whether you can do it in a design that does not interfere with your way of life. There are many ways in which we can integrate the protection of civilian and soft targets from attack, without creating a fortress environment, in which everywhere you walk in the city you feel like you are being watched. Without everywhere you enter having heavy security like in airports.

Cities have already developed some creative ideas. Planting trees, for example, which is also good for the environment. You can mitigate the risk of incidents by planting trees in certain points. The UN is very much promoting the resilience of cities and of societies in general. For me, the best example was New York City. On the day of the attack, no Halloween plans were cancelled. People celebrated the city by owning the streets and saying: you will not scare us.

CW: Resilience is exactly the right word. You help the social fabric of the city, always keeping the historic layers. People and neighbourhoods that have been there a long time are some of the best watchdogs. Younger people, a better mix of ages, a variety of businesses and organizations, and encouraging people to stay in places longer, creates more incentives for people to help each other. Ultimately, an environment where people are getting help from one another creates resilience.

IK: I like this airport example. The experience of going through security does not make an airport any better. In fact, it makes it all the more terrible. But you’re both presenting examples that are win-wins, such as pedestrian ways that can be good for commerce and civic spirit but can also make a place safer. Is that the right way to understand urban planning and security – finding approaches that serve multiple ends?

CW: A good example of that was the incident in New York around the Hudson River Park. People had been asking the city to close off spaces where vehicles could drive down the bike path by accident. But the spaces were never closed off. So it was very easy for this person to drive down the bike path and kill people. But the city then reacted by putting up barriers for bicycles, not for cars. There was a huge outcry. The city was forced to rotate the barriers and find a way to stop them impeding cycle traffic. The police should have been discussing a better strategy rather than putting up a bunch of jersey barriers. Again, I call it fighting the last war, because next time it will be someone on a motorcycle.

DS: Conversation between citizens, city residents, the private sector, the business community and law enforcement is important for resilience, and for counterterrorism in general. The community also owns the protection of their own spaces. They wanted a solution that changed the balance of how they consumed their city. At the UN, we are encouraging member states to have such conversations on many issues. One of them is how to protect, of course. Another is how to integrate, how to deal with communities, how to deal with marginalized individuals.

CW: Ultimately what’s under attack seems to be the symbol of cities, which tends to be about public spaces. This conversation between designers, the community and police departments is critical, because without everyone as partners, we’re going to cause people to leave cities. Or, if they don’t leave the city, to lose economic opportunity, and thus the city becomes less resilient. It’s more prone to a downward spiral. It might simply be too costly to block everything off.

DS: I agree. If places – even landmarks – are too protected, they become tourist attractions, but not places that people in the city feel are part of consuming the city. They are just big places that they try to avoid as much as they can.

IK: You are both describing scenarios in which strength and resilience come from engaging with a diverse set of actors, working at different scales and with different interests. How does a body like the UN, which deals directly with member states, go about operating locally? How do cities themselves, and designers and communities within cities, engage in the larger global security conversation, of which the UN is at the centre?

DS: We are a global body, so it is very difficult for us to work locally in a neighbourhood in any part of the world. Our key work is first to be a megaphone. We can convey the message to member states, and to mayors and cities. We can even encourage dialogue between cities on their shared experiences, specifically cities that have experienced attacks. For example, we’re going to the Philippines, a country to which many foreign terrorist fighters moved after ISIL lost territory in Syria and Iraq. We’re bringing city officials, with representatives from the local community and civil society, to discuss resilience. How can cities in the Philippines be more resilient to ISIS propaganda?

CW: On a local level, one of the biggest problems is that it’s a shared security network between private interests and public interests. Much of the security in cities gets translated into locking down parts of the city for restricted access. Right now, in every building in New York, you have to have your security checked. That may be the way of the future, but there are plenty of cities in which you aren’t checked, and yet they’re safe. In New York, we want one device or one strategy to solve everything. But just like resilience, it has to be a layered approach. Trees, or in some cases bollards, or maybe you get a day pass to enter an area.

The more shared information – whether from the UN or elsewhere – about what makes a place both safe and resilient, about what kinds of strategies building owners, local neighbourhoods and governments can use and what kinds of layers can work, will help.


Author: Ian Klaus || World Economic Forum
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