The Burgeoning Field of Security Perimeter Design

As bollards and Jersey barriers become ubiquitous, architects and designers look for ways to make them less hideous

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Josh Dudley

For years, visitors to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in D.C. were greeted by Jersey barriers, those blunt concrete blockades meant to bear the brunt of a speeding car. They were stacked around the monument after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The barriers, and later granite replacements, sat there for nearly a decade. A whole generation of tourists to the capital must have smiling photos on America’s front lawn with terrorist deterrents in the background.

In the years following the bombings in Oklahoma City and Africa, and then Sept. 11, 2001, similar roadblocks went up around Washington and dozens of other cities, encircling anything that seemed remotely important: museums, government office complexes, national historic sites.

“When a security person looks at a security barrier or looks at the issue of perimeter security, their primary object is protecting people, or sometimes material objects,” says Roger Courtenay, a veteran landscape architect in the Washington area. “That’s going to color everything they think about.”

The problem is that this also colors everything pedestrians think about. Jersey barriers, metal bollards and cement blockades not-so-subtly communicate “someone is worried about a truck bomb here.” And, in doing so, it changes the way people move through and think about public spaces.

“What landscape architects think about first when challenged with a perimeter security project is, well, the public realm,” Courtenay says. “This is going to be something that is going to appear in the public realm, and at least we Americans typically think of the public realm as the floor of democracy. It’s the place where we’re free, and [that means] free will, but also freedom to move.”

There's plenty of fierce debate about whether all this “militarized urbanism” is even needed at all. But if we have to have some of these things, why can’t they be beautiful? Why can’t security bollards be shaped into some kind of interesting sculpture, so that they look less like militant hedgerows? Why can’t security barriers present themselves first as something else – as benches, or fountains, or public art?

Some buildings and cities have begun to think about this. But if you’ve walked by a public plaza that’s really a security setback, or leaned in to smell flowers sprouting from a concrete planter that could thwart a car bomb, you may not have even noticed. Well-designed perimeter security doesn’t look like perimeter security at all (in fact, some of it is so well disguised we had a hard time seeking permission to publish photos drawing attention to some of the best examples).

About five years ago, the National Park Service finally decided to do something about the Washington Monument. Landscape architect Laurie Olin solved the problem by designing what looks like a decorative wall at the base of the hill on which the monument sits. The 30-inch high granite ledge is attractive and unobtrusive. Tourists commonly treat it like a bench. But it's designed to stop a truck.

Elsewhere on the National Mall, the grounds of several Smithsonian museums are dotted with large boulders that blend with museum motifs. The boulders prove that even a thoughtfully conceived hulk of rock can be less obtrusive than a Jersey barrier.

These ideas were all conceived as part of well-financed plans to remodel national monuments. But plenty of solutions are much cheaper and more accessible. The New York City Department of Transportation has been running a “barrier beautification” program since 2008 that literally entails applying paint to road blocks.

“We look at things with that lens: What could be a canvas for art?” says Wendy Feuer, the DOT’s assistant commissioner for urban design and art. “What is not a traditional canvas for art?”

This is exactly the question cities everywhere could be asking about security eyesores. If you can't move them, embellish them. The Jersey barrier “canvases” in New York exist primarily to separate pedestrians and bikers from car traffic, not necessarily pedestrians and buildings from car bombs. But the idea could be applied anywhere.

“The thing about art in the public right of way, or art in public places, for me is that it’s a surprise,” Feuer says. “It’s art in unexpected places, so people are happily surprised that it’s there.”

This is not the way most people react to an unpainted Jersey barrier.

“It’s not transforming the place, but it’s transforming the experience of that place,” Feuer says. “These are barriers that have to be here to protect people, but we’re making them into something else.”

Below, look through our slideshow of some of our favorite examples of how cities could transform security barriers into civic assets.

Top image by Flickr user Josh Dudley, used by permission

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.