Greater Greater Washington

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Security experts, like the public, disagree on security

At last night's NCPC panel, "Redefining Security a Decade After 9/11," we were reminded that on security, Americans are a "cantan­kerous bunch." According to Brian Jenkins of RAND Corporation, US residents demand to feel 100% safe at all times at no cost to their way of life.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Jenkins, joined by architect Thomas Vonier and landscape architect Alan Ward, addressed this dilemma and others in a discussion on balancing physical security needs with good urban design. When it came to how much security is appropriate, though, the panelists diverged in their recommendations.

Vonier's talk seemed to encourage a "whatever it takes" mentality on introducing both visible and concealed security measures into the urban space. He embraced the use of "choke points," or highly supervised, securitized points that all people entering a site must pass through. Vonier lauded Lafayette Square as a successful example of an urban control zone.

In contrast to Vonier stood Ward, who turned to the Washington Monument as an ideal example of a minimalist solution to security concerns. The Monument received a security facelift in 2003 with the addition of sunken walls that naturally curve around the base of the hill on which the Monument stands, providing additional security without encroaching upon visitors' privacy.

Unlike Vonier, Ward seemed more inclined to respect historical precedents and maintain the natural order of a space to the greatest extent possible. He lamented the 18-foot descent that pedestrians endure when approaching the Capitol Visitor Center, a sensation he described as the antithesis to the entry experience one expects of such a grand building.

Jenkins and Vonier both suggested civic authorities reduce security risks from vehicles by creating pedestrian roadways with reduced or no car and truck access. London developed the "Ring of Steel" after a series of IRA attacks. This is a perimeter of Closed-captioned Television (CCTV), police, and bollards within the City of London, Greater London's financial district. According to Jenkins, as a result of the "Ring of Steel," the streets have been "pedestrianized," and commerce is thriving.

Ward, however, disagreed with adopting a similar approach. "We don't have the density of pedestrians" to eliminate cars from certain roads, he said. Ward also suggested that the economy would not support such changes in traffic patterns, which could "kill businesses."

The panelists bandied about a number of solutions to the question of how to simultaneously provide both security and amenity. Vonier referred to the classic necessity of more eyes on the street to increase vigilance against threats. He suggested that police and civic authorities encourage proprietors to take ownership of the sidewalks and streets in front of their businesses, creating a "defensible space."

During the question and answer session, Jenkins suggested that in order to make the public more accountable for security, governments must improve education and communication, helping individuals to better understand policy decisions and security protocol while empowering them to be more vigilant.

Disappointingly, some of the pricklier subjects, such as congestion pricing, closed circuit surveillance, and defense against airborne security threats were mentioned in brief but not explored much further.

Many questions still remained unanswered. How can design engage the public in the provision of their own security? At what point did Americans become passive potential victims, as many of the latest security measures suggest? Which works better: the prototypical Parisian cafe-style of surveillance, or the large setbacks and empty spaces prevalent in front of federal buildings?

Nobody seemed fully equipped to provide answers, largely because the issue frequently turns into a matter of subjective opinion, as the talks showed. At the very least, however, the panelists could all agree that many existing security features around DC, like the Jersey barriers outside of the Federal Aviation Administration's building, can and should be improved to reflect stronger urban design and a better connection to the pedestrian experience.

Alison Crowley works in real estate development with a focus on drawing educational, health, and recreational resources to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. 
Tom Leonard is a Management and Program Analyst with the Treasury Department. Tom is currently applying for a Master's in City and Regional Planning, part of his life-time goal of starting a true community bank. He has a vested interest in the future development of Washington, DC, having lived in the city for 8 years and graduating from American University in 2007.  

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US residents demand to feel 100% safe at all times at no cost to their way of life.

The problem here is that there are no politicians that dare to say that these two things are not possible at the same time. Especially since politicians that might even consider thinking such a thing will be hounded down by so-called security specialists vendors that will claim it is possible. Just look at who's paying former DHS people now...

On a larger scale, the same thing is true throughout politics. For instance, politicians are not capable of saying that deficit reduction (in whatever form) will mean certain changes, most of which will be unpleasant.

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

@Jasper: No, those two things are possible at the same time. It's just extremely expensive, and we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions) in the last 10 years to have our cake and eat it too.

For example, air travel can still be extremely convenient and safe. We just have to spend a ton of money for all kinds of security.

by Tim on Sep 13, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

@Jasper; I don't know, your foreign roots are showing.

What politicians are really good at is distracting you. Talk about airline security, not about 50,000 dead on the roads. Talk about security in front of federal buildings, when the last two major terrorist attacks were on trains. I agree with your point that there is no 100% security. And there shouldn't be. And politicians know that, but distract us with cheap fixes.

Architects are just as bad in terms of getting wasteful federal contracts.

by charlie on Sep 13, 2011 10:55 am • linkreport

+100k for Alison's bio!!!

by HogWash on Sep 13, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

@ Tim:No, those two things are possible at the same time. It's just extremely expensive,

And that extreme expense is no cost to my way of life?

@ charlie:What politicians are really good at is distracting you.

I wish I had enough faith in politicians to believe that they're that intelligent. The problem is that they're so distracted themselves that they are mostly clueless about what's really going on. Meanwhile, they just reiterate whatever good-sounding line they got from a staffer who got that line from a lobbyist.

Stewart showed a clip last week of Sen McCaskill suggesting that a campaign showing the value of written letters could really help USPS get back on track. That pretty much illustrates my point. She had no good talking points because there are no lobbyists interested in the postal market.

BTW, this not only goes for American politicians, but also for Dutch, Belgian, British and other European politicians, which have very different distractions.

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

@jasper; well, like everything, there are good politicians and bad politicians. Some are better at distracting you. The GWB model - grin and say, oh shucks -- well, doesn't cut it when you've got bigger problems.

Belgian politicians must be off the chart since they've convinced the country they aren't necessary. What is it 500 days? And the place is doing better? What the threat -- if you elect us we promise to fuck it up again?

Bill Clinton was a genius. He got China into the WTO and made sure every American get a free flat screen TV and a SUV. Look, no revolt!

by charlie on Sep 13, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

I don't believe complete safety is compatible with limited impact on way of life. This isn't just a cost issue. You can't have all these visible security measures without interfering with built and natural environment in which we conduct our lives. It might be possible, with an infinite supply of money to create invisible security measure that have little impact on our way of life, but I get the impression that the pro-security hucksters believe we must show our strength in order to discourage violent acts in the first place.

For all the good things happening in Washington, the securitization of the city makes it an increasingly alienating place to be.

by Eric H. on Sep 13, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

The open market will help decide where the security vs convenience tradeoff ends up.

Look at the Old Post Office: Completely shriveling up and dying ever since the severe pat-down and X-ray security was put in place. The last time I was there, they made us take off our shoes. And I'm sure it costs a lot of bucks to staff those entrances with guards and scanners all the time.

Contrast with the walkable shopping districts that are not just "secure" but actually safe for pedestrians. And above all else attractive.

I think it's pretty obvious how this is going to settle out. But I am surprised that it has taken so long to settle out. e.g. why didn't the Old Post Office shrivel up and die in the first months of draconian security?

by B.O. on Sep 13, 2011 12:36 pm • linkreport

@ charlie:there are good politicians and bad politicians.

Find me a quote from a politician pointing out either of the things I said above. Can't find them.

Belgian politicians must be off the chart since they've convinced the country they aren't necessary. What is it 500 days? And the place is doing better?

457 days. But, they did get a budget past, and will pass the second one soon. Without a fully functional government.

On the other hand, Belgium is not doing better. Their debt has always been very high, up to 160% of GDP I think. It's been coming down because of the euro-rules, and the markets have accepted their appropriate behavior. However, the markets are getting nervous with a second care-taker budget coming up, because in numbers, Belgium looks very much like Greece or Portugal. The difference being that Belgium actually has an economy.

Finally, if you think that American politicians are not collaborating, then study what's going on in Belgium. It makes Michelle Bachmann and Nancy Pelosi look like good friends.

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2011 1:09 pm • linkreport

As one who was in the audience that evening, I find the report captures the essence of the presentations. I also agree that there are many questions that could be put on the table for study and, perhaps, action.

This may not be the place to start such a list of questions, but I will ask one: Given the rejection, which I feel was most unfortunate, of providing an alternative freight rail line so the CSX could reach the port of Baltimore from the south, particularly its east coast, without having to cross the Potomac, then DC near the National Mall and the Capitol, then the Anacostia, what security steps should be taken to ensure that both the typical ongoing risks of rail operation are understood along with the added risks the operation provides in this location to those who would seek to disrupt essential transport or the seat of our Federal Government?

by Lindsley Williams on Sep 14, 2011 6:11 am • linkreport

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