Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In the absence of meaningful gun reform, it isn’t hard to imagine public spaces becoming more rigid, enclosed, and surveilled. That’s a problem.
Walking through D.C.’s Union Station late last night, I caught myself wondering absentmindedly where the best place to leap might be if someone started shooting.
Like most of us, I had been mourning the tragedy in Orlando, where the deadliest mass shooting in American history took place in a gay club early Sunday. Thinking of the horror experienced inside the club, I was ashamed to find myself pondering a hypothetical question of self-preservation.
But I suspect this is not an uncommon thought. A 2015 survey by the New York Times garnered more than 5,000 responses from readers who described considering the threat of a mass, violent attack “while riding the subway, going to the movies, dropping their children off at school and attending religious services.” Since the Orlando massacre, articles explaining “how to survive a terror attack” abound.
The types of environments that provoke these fearful questions tend to be public (or at least publicly accessible) urban places—designed for groups to gather, learn, play, move, and converse. Neither home nor work, they are “third spaces,” in planning parlance. Not all acts of mass murder and terror occur inside third spaces, but many of them do. In Paris, it was in sidewalk cafes and restaurants and a concert hall. In Brussels, it was the airport and a subway station. In Aurora, it was a movie theater. In Charleston, a church. A college campus in Oregon, an elementary school in Newtown.
In Orlando, it was Pulse, a popular gay dance club. In the very early hours of Sunday morning, in a targeted, homophobic attack, the killer strode into the club and shot dead 49 people over the course of three hours.
Much has been said about the specific insult of the chosen site of the Orlando attack, given Pulse’s place as a sanctuary of acceptance for the local LGBT community. Gay bars play this role across the country. In that way, they are the ultimate third spaces.
Broadly speaking, when they are truly accessible, third spaces enable everyone to benefit from some of the best features of city life. Cafes, churches, sidewalks, bars, cinemas, playgrounds, parks, and clubs are where the random intersections, the creative play, the pluralism, and the tolerance that mark urbanity tend to take shape and place. Third spaces are open and soft, adaptable to those using them.
As the names of the victims roll out, questions about the safety of Pulse’s physical space have come up. Some wonder whether a more heavily secured bar, with metal detectors, pat-downs, and guards, would have prevented the attack. Some gun-rights advocates are arguing that if Pulse had not been a “gun-free zone” under Florida law, and if other citizens had been allowed to be armed inside the club, then perhaps the death toll would not have been so high.
These are not new questions. The architecture of other kinds of quasi-public space has responded to violent attacks, or at least to their perceived threat. As the the MIT scholar Susan Silberberg recently wrote, jersey barriers, bollards, CCTV, and restricted areas have transformed urban spaces since 9/11, especially in the public areas outside federal buildings and financial districts. Since the Newtown massacre in 2012, a range of school-security designs including door barricades, bulletproof backpacks, and ballistic whiteboards have been developed and in some cases implemented. Metal detectors and beefed-up security personnel are now the status quo at many sports stadiums and concert arenas.
These measures seem to be here to stay, 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’s research indicates that this securitization often succeeds most at exploiting our fear, amplifying our anxiety, and even chipping away at our rights to access public space. She writes, “This sense of vulnerability leads to increasing security measures, creating a vicious cycle in which more is always perceived as better”—whether or not that’s really true.
As mass shootings become a steady drumbeat of American life, it’s not hard for me to imagine more and other types of third spaces bending to that sense of vulnerability, responding to that thought I had in the train station. I can see more police, more barriers, more cameras, more rules, and taller, heavier walls around parks, plazas, playgrounds, pools, popular cafes, and movie theaters. It isn’t hard to imagine certain third spaces becoming rigid, more enclosed, and surveilled—in other words, not really public, accessible, or fluid anymore.
What would that mean for American cities, for a pluralist society? What would happen to that special, creative energy for which Jane Jacobs praised public space? Where would our protests, parades, festivals, memorials and marches occur?
This is the moment we need third spaces the most. Think of the defiant acts of terrace dining in Paris late last year. Think of the vigils—and even LGBT Pride parades—held in public parks, streets, and squares throughout the world this week. Think of all the families and friends of the Orlando victims, finding comfort in their churches, bars, libraries, and schools.
I fear for our third spaces, but not because they have been sites of horror. I fear for third spaces because, particularly in the continued absence of meaningful gun reform, erasing the best things about them seems like a plausible reaction.