The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

How many barriers is too many?

The concrete planters around the Hirshhorn Museum helped slow a wayward truck that crashed into the museum last week. This crash was not a deliberate attempt to attack the building. It was a totally freak incident which had never happened before.

Photo by cliff1066™.

Although this will probably spur efforts to increase the security measures around the building, it really should be a catalyst for rethinking the purpose and even the need for these ugly and ineffective barriers across DC.

Post-9/11, jersey barriers, concrete planters, bollards and other "security" measures sprung up like weeds everywhere in Washington. First they surrounded places like the White House and Capitol, but before long they started appearing around virtually every building housing a federal worker or owned by some level of government.

By now, the totality of those barriers must cover scores of acres of valuable sidewalk real estate. They create an unwelcome atmosphere to pedestrians, forcing them to weave and sometimes wait for others to make room just to walk to and from their destinations. Most of them are unsightly at best and downright ugly at worst. They have degraded the open space and welcoming feel of virtually every outdoor space in the core of DC.

It's understandable that we put measures in place to protect the White House, Capitol and other key potential targets. But the Hirshhorn is not such a target. It is not on any terrorist's list of buildings.

In fact, most people have never even heard of it. When out-of-towners come visit, and I recommend it to them, never once has anyone heard of it before. I even know people who live here in DC who haven't heard of it. It's not on the list. Neither is the Renwick, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, etc.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is much more iconic than the Hirshhorn. A quick check of Google Street View shows no barriers protecting the museum entrance from the street.

Pedestrians may walk easily and directly into the building without impedance. Likewise with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, for that matter, the most famous art museum in the world, the Louvre in Paris. What are we afraid of that they are not?

Washington, DC is the capital of the United States, supposedly the beacon of freedom in the world. Yet in our capital, the simple freedom of being able to walk on sidewalks and enter public buildings unaccosted has been taken away. Each little step in this direction, like overhyped security on Earth Day, chips away at the free society that supposedly reflects our nation's fundamental values.

Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokesperson, said the barriers "did their job." What exactly is their job? Were they supposed to "slow" an out-of-control truck so that it still struck the building, causing damage, but maybe not as much? Was that their intent when they put them in? That's laughable.

No, they were put there to protect the building from intentional attack. It's just coincidental that they happened to slow the truck down a bit. In fact, now it's obvious that these barriers all around town are just a charade, because they wouldn't stop a determined terrorist anyway—they can just be pushed aside by a medium-sized truck. The point, though, is not that we need to bolt them down or make them heavier. It's that they don't really need to be there at all, because they are an illusion, protecting against an imaginary threat.

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine the truck went out of control a mile or two away in a commercial corridor and ran into a storefront. Would the reaction be to suddenly install some sort of barriers along the street to protect against the rare wayward vehicle? Would we put up bollards or barriers along every street? No. The owner would file a claim with its insurance company, fix up the store, and life would go on as before, with the sidewalks adjoining the street as always.

The Hirshhorn is an art and sculpture museum. It celebrates the aesthetic of the visual. The building itself—love it or hate it—is a piece of visual art. It is surrounded by sculptures. If anyone should understand the negative visual impact of these ridiculous planters (even worse are the jersey barriers on the Jefferson Drive side of the museum), it should be the curators at this museum.

Ms. St. Thomas also said, "Maybe one piece of good that could come out of this is a little more funding and little more thought into where we really do need security and how we do that correctly and appropriately,"

Yes, a little more thought. And perhaps a little less funding. Let's get rid of 90% of the barriers around DC. They are unnecessary. Evidently they don't even function to protect the buildings as intended. They rob us all of valuable space. They are ugly, visual clutter. They run counter to our nation's values. And they degrade the experience of citizens of and visitors to our nation's capital.

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver. 


Add a comment »


by Michael on May 19, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

I completely agree.

And for those situations where defensive measures really are necessary, I'd prefer they be more aesthetically designed rather than concrete or water-filled barriers dotting the perimeter... especially if the facility being defended is itself a facility showcasing aesthetic works of art, or an aesthetically-pleasing work of architecture.

Buildings in design might terrace the building higher (forming a more natural wall with landscaping &/or retaining wall) or perhaps build stonework art pieces which can withstand collision (such as low walls around fountains).

Or even use the large planters common around other federal building (albeit ideally maintained as flowering planters and not defacto trash cans) or landscaping w/ natural-looking concrete boulders such as what can be found at NIH.

Of course the first question is if a building really needs to be defended. If it does, I'm fine with concrete barrier in the short-term, but would much prefer to see a longer-term solution that creates a better product for tourists, residents, and workers alike.

by Bossi on May 19, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

Ditto. Not that ammped up security wasn't called for, but I think terrorists win if you devolve into paranoia if one isn't reasonable. As for the actual bollards, having spent my childhood in Olde Rome, I fondly remember their Travatine bollards that we used to play leap frog on. In Paris and Amsterdam they have wonderfully slender ornamental iron ones painted black to disapear. Why do we have to have monolithic concrete chunks in the USA? Maybe it's Brutalism and therefore cool.

by Thayer-D on May 19, 2010 1:44 pm • linkreport

I think spike strips would do the trick.

by aaa on May 19, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

OMG these things are like 50% of the reason I will probably never move back to DC from Portland, OR. That and the ridiculous volume of sprawl that y'all have generated.

by Allan on May 19, 2010 1:49 pm • linkreport

Buildings can have very good security measures and still looking inviting and nice. The design for the new American embassy in London is centered around that idea.

by Tim on May 19, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

For a free and open society based on principles of representational government, individual liberty and civil rights?


by Redline SOS on May 19, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

There are to many barriers when a wheelchair can not access a building.

I saw this downtown at some building (cant think of the name of it right now) and it was no way possible for a wheelchair to get through the front entrance the planters were spaced about the size of a wheelchair. Because of planters even though the building and surrounding area was wheelchair accessible it isnt no more.

by kk on May 19, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

Give me a flatbed towtruck, a ryder truck and two suicide bombers and I can beat any bollard, sidewalk barrier or retaining wall less than 5 feet tall. All fixed defenses can be breached by determined human ingenuity.

by crin on May 19, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

Give me a flatbed towtruck, a ryder truck and two suicide bombers and I can beat any bollard, sidewalk barrier or retaining wall less than 5 feet tall. All fixed defenses can be breached by determined human ingenuity.

by crin on May 19, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

You are wrong about the Guggenheim Museum. You can clearly see the 3' high concrete wall at the back of the sidewalk surrounding the building. It has 2 entrances, one too narrow for any vehicle traffic bigger than a golf cart, and the other would be what I consider an oversight, but the barriers are there. The same protective measure built around the Washington Monument, that most people see and ignore as a retaining wall, but forget it wasn't there until a few years ago.

You aren't seeing the bigger picture. The Hirshorn (and every other structure on the Mall) isn't being protected because of what it is, it is being protected because of "where" it is...right on America's symbolic front lawn in an area trafficed by thousands of innocent tourists per day. The hirshorn is also one of those ridiuclous designs reminict of the heyday of obvliousness like the FBI Building, DOE etc that someone could literally drive a car underneath a building on stilts, or "up in the air".

You can look at the FBI, our nations preminent terrorist sna law enforcement organization who designed their own building in the early 70's and they still managed to build about the most "vulnerable to vehicle attack" building they could have and they are supposed to be the experts, but we were just naive to the danger then.

The planters have admittedly no protective value. Anyone with any measure of common sense could look at a thin walled vessel filled with dirt and realize it wouldn't stop anything larger than a Pinto.

I was amazed at the speed in which every public and government space in DC was surrounded by jersey barriers (which are rated to stop semis on the highway at speed so I wouldn't recommend testing their usefulness with your car) in the weeks after 9/11, and they are slowly being replaced by those green bollards that now number in the thousands. I would hope they would complete the transition quicker as jersey barriers outside of buildings is ugly as sin, but I understand why they are there.

I would venture that like most things, the US was being naive in "not" having vehicle protections like this around public buildings. Anyone who has lived abroad has seen that cities that experience more frequent terrorist acts (London, Paris etc) have been protecting their public buildings with vehicle barriers for decades. I lived in London in the early 80's for awhile and every gov building I saw had them and had to go through bag checks while walking into any museum as well.

I will agree that there are better, more asthetic ways to do this, but I wholeheartedly believe that it needs to be done.

by nookie on May 19, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

Bruce Schneier often uses situations like this as "teachable moments" in the war on illogical "security" measures:

Also, some buildings are "protected" by more than just the bollards. I watched one of the House office buildings have "tiger traps" installed - the sidewalk is designed to give way with sufficient weight.

by EZ on May 19, 2010 2:03 pm • linkreport

I agree with Nookie. Wake up America, we need ATF buildings everywhere.

by Neil Flanagan on May 19, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

It's also worth mentioning that some of these barriers went up before 9/11 after a security report found certain places, like the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, vulnerable to attack. It took close to a decade to make a permanent fix in some of these places.

by aaa on May 19, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

I agree with @nookie, that we need to have barriers, but that they don't need to be ugly or hazardous to pedestrians. In this case, the planters *did* help to slow the vehicle, though they clearly weren't up to snuff for stopping the truck. A knee wall, or stronger bollards as used by the World Bank would probably serve better.

I, too, noticed the built-in protective wall at the Guggenheim, and the Washington monument. It's time for a more friendly barrier throughout DC. It's about safety, and it's about protecting our treasured buildings and museums.

A side note, the Hirshhorn does attract over a million visitors a year, through not only exhibits, but also events and lectures. It may not be as glamorous as the Guggenheim, but it's no chump either.

by Fabian on May 19, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport


From Top Gear of the UK.

Those barriers are effective.

by RFZFf on May 19, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

I agree with Steve. The barriers may be of some use, but I think the numbers of the around town is overkill. There was just an entire lecture last night about how the city's low skyline, impressive buildings, and open, accessible streets make Washington a world treasure that is both aesthetically pleasing and acts as a symbol for the nation as a whole. What do barriers represent? I am willing to accept a certain level of insecurity in order to preserve our freedoms.

As to nookie's assertion that the museum "isn't being protected because of what it is, it is being protected because of "where" it is" I would say that becomes a reason to protect, as Steve says, anything and everything. An act of terrorism on an apartment building anywhere in the city would be "an attack on Washington". Had there actually been a bomb on 16th Street this morning, that too would have been an attack on Washington. The ceremonial core means little in that regard and as you said, the actual building (perhaps with the exception of the White House, Capitol, etc.) means even less.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

Attached is a streetview of Constitution Ave and 1st St NE with the aforementioned bollards that are the now approved NCPC replacement for the temporary jersey barriers.

View Larger Map

How exactly isn't that "open and accessible"? They take up almost none of the sidewalk and is completely and easily passable to pedestrians, bikers, handicap etc.

And no, an attack on an apt building in Washington is not the same as an attack on "Washington" or "America". An attack on the "NATIONAL" Mall is and we will just have to agree to disagree on the symbolic relevance of that. An attack on a apt building in DC would hit the AP as "Apt Building in DC Attacked", while a car bomb on the Mall would hit the wires as "America Attacked - Bomb Strikes Americas Front Lawn" or some equivalent.

On top of that, almost change that, EVERY single building that lines both Constitution and Independance Avenues from 2nd Street SE/NE to 14th Street NW (16 contiguous blocks) are Federal Government Office buildings. So it may look like a lot to someone who only vists DC for the day and spends their entire time in the tourist core, but it isn't like every building, private or otherwise in the city is blocked off.

by nookie on May 19, 2010 4:03 pm • linkreport

The particularly offensive barriers are those that impose on relatively small pedestrian spaces, such as sidewalks. Where there is plenty of pedestrian space, and where barriers don't impeded pedestrian flow (as on Penn. Ave in front of the White House) there is rarely a complaint.

And, of course, barriers are only necessary where there is significant, uncontrolled private vehicular access to sensitive areas. Whether we really need that...

by egk on May 19, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport


Call me when those barriers stop a car bomb. They're ugly security theater. Plain and simple.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport


Why don't you call me when they don't stop the carbomber. Each of those bollards is a solid 10" diameter bar of steel that may only stick 4' in the air, but has a rebar and concrete encased pile driven foundation 12 feet deep. See page 12 for photo. They are rated to stop a direct hit from a 6 ton vehicle going 50 mph.

by nookie on May 19, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport


That's not the point. A terrorist doesn't need to ram a truck through those barriers to set off a bomb... I would imagine the few feet of sidewalk wouldn't make much of a difference in the blast radius. I'm not trying to be nonchalant about the effects of terrorism, but merely trying to point out that those barriers will not stop a terrorist attack from happening. They are a largely unneeded, costly eyesore that serve only to make people believe that their government is really doing something to protect them.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

Adam, you are missing the whole point of the barrier then. They aren't the magic pill to change some terrorists mind into not attacking, they are a realistic tool to minimize the damage caused by one intent to.

The point is so that a car bomber can't drive his car through the front door of a building and then detonate, (Oklahoma City Style which had no bollards by the way) which would logically cause more death and damage than a guy detonating his car bomb in the middle of the street 50 yards away, which would likely shatter all the windows in said building, but not bring it down killing everyone inside.

And factual evidence from numerous attacks in London, Paris, car bomb attacks on our embassies over the past two decades show that bollards do indeed work very well. I am sorry you don't like they way they look, but they are there for a very real purpose.

by Nookie on May 19, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport


I can see how that can make sense if the building is set back far from the street. I therefore agree with them at places like, say, the Capitol. Clearly they have a purpose there.

But on the image you showed above near the Dirksen Building the sidewalk is only a few feet wide... I'm no expert, but I don't believe the barriers will offer much more by means of protection. In addition, the psychological affect of terrorist attacks is not directly linked to the amount of destruction. An attack, with or without a barrier, still accomplishes the terrorist's mission. Anyway, that's all I've got. We'll just have to agree to disagree on some of these points.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

Adam L,

I generally agree with you, and find most of these security measures theatrical in nature and done by folks who can't admit that their third rate government office building isn't as important as the Capitol. An attack on the Hirshhorn is an attack on America itself? I doubt it would play out that way.

But nookie is right on the technical stuff. It isn't about the blast radius. Its about making sure the blast doesn't bring the building down (OK City, Khobar Towers, Marine Barracks, etc.). To do that, you have to place the very large explosive directly next to the building. A few feet would mean the difference between a building collapsing immediately or allowing enough time to allow folks to get out.

And hey, in the case of the Hirshhorn, that would allow the staff and both its patrons to safely evacuate.

by TimK on May 19, 2010 5:25 pm • linkreport

I am always telling people back home about the sloppy jersey walls, random street closures for security, and protestors for things you never knew existed that are characteristic of this town. I assumed they were all part of the deal.

The jersey walls are the worst though. Either put up something more permenant or do nothing; one or the other. Ugh.

by matt on May 19, 2010 5:43 pm • linkreport

How many barriers is too many?

Every single one. They are visible and annoying proof that the terrorists are winning. They have instilled us with so much fear that we have changed our lives on a daily basis. We are literally looser for letting this happen.

Steve for DC safety chief!

by Jasper on May 19, 2010 8:27 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of post-9/11 barriers in this town, but vehicle barriers are not new. GSA Public Building Service standards mandate vehicle barriers (and other measures, like blast-resistant windows) - and I think they've been part of the standards since the mid-90s. Whenever you build a project that has to meet PBS standards, you need to put in barriers.

As someone who's generally opposed to the erosions of civil and human rights, I have to say that this kind of simple, potentially-effective, non-invasive security measure makes a lot of sense.

TimK is right: this kind of blast protection measure isn't meant to prevent attacks, just to reduce the chance of catastrophic damage to the building's structure. It's an inexpensive measure, and done right, it presents no obstacles to legitimate public access.

Yes, the barriers failed in this case. Yes, they're ugly. It does not follow that all barriers are ineffective. Nor does it follow that barriers cannot be attractive. This is just a case of badly designed barriers. So fix 'em.

I'm not sure when they're due to go in - they might already be up - but the new barriers around the Dept. of Commerce Building are integrated with the landscaping. The're not supposed to look like barriers. They look like part of an improved streetscape, part of the benches, trees, and bike parking.

by David R. on May 19, 2010 9:01 pm • linkreport

Just let me sit on the steps of the Capitol again, or at least stroll on the Terrace like it wasn't the Forbidden City.

by Boots on May 20, 2010 8:06 am • linkreport

I would like to see less security for philosophical reasons - but if we can't do that, then we might as well make the barriers attractive and interesting. The bollards around the Capitol complex are a good step, as is the wall around the Washington Monument. At least these structures can be removed without destroying the architectural integrity of the building. The same can't be said with some newer buildings.

The ATF building is an example of a security duck: the building's form pretty much arises from the bombproofing requirements. Because its architecture is so integrated with the symbolic form of being secure. The design cannot be changed either physically or symbolically, so when the security obsession lets up, we're stuck with a fortress.

by Neil Flanagan on May 20, 2010 8:12 am • linkreport

Well said, Neil.

The Capitol bollards are just fine. The Washington Monument walking paths/retaining walls/ha has are great, too.

What bothers me is the rush for all this security leaves us with temporary measures that are ugly, hurt the street environment and make walking difficult, and as the Hirschorn incident shows, really aren't all that secure.

by Alex B. on May 20, 2010 8:36 am • linkreport

I agree wholeheartedly with the original post. And the analogy to a private sector building getting run into is perfect. You fix it, you move on. Stuff happens. You cannot make any building 100% safe and by wasting time and energy on the installation of barriers that provide illusory safety is a crime and contrary to the ideal of an open and democratic society.
We lost two entire office towers on 9/11. But life has gone on. Most of the responses from governments and individuals have just added to the stress caused by that event, not made anything better. We have to focus on the needs of our daily lives, not on some imagined, remotely possible, hypothetical scenario that may or may not ever happen. The "security" measures end up protecting almost no one, really, but inconvenience almost everyone, definitely.

What was most disturbing about the accident at the Hirschorn was realizing that the barriers couldn't even stop a medium-sized truck going at moderate speed. Then what the heck were they there for? And yet the museum spokesperson says they did their job?!?! Talk about self-delusion. Hopefully behind closed doors museum management is cursing out their security folks. And then taking a few deep breaths and realizing the best option would be to not replace them at all.

While we're on the subject, can we PLEASE reopen E Street? Good God, you've got the entire South Lawn to prevent any significant damage from a hypothetical truck bomb if that's what you're worried about.

My hunch is that even if President Obama himself wanted to reopen E street, he wouldn't be able to. The rest of the security team around the table would say it wasn't prudent, partly because that's their job - to say it wouldn't be prudent.

by Josh S on May 20, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

Are the ubiquitous defenses truely necessary? Probably not, but I suspect that the fear and fear-mongering that brought them in the first place will continue into the foreseeable future. Witness the reporting today that puts DC as a likely terrorist target. With that in mind, perhaps there should be an effort to develop aesthetically pleasing, even artistic, bollards and barriers that don't take up so much sidewalk space. For emergencies on aircraft carriers the Navy uses steel mesh nets to stop airplanes, which surely have more kinetic energy than a speeding truck. If we must have barriers, at least make them less obtrusive than gigantic hunks of concrete.

by Goety on May 20, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

And on the topic of E street: Do the barricades keeping people (pedestrians) out of the two parks around the Sherman statue (E & 15th) and the First Division Monument (E & 17th) mean that these parks are now (more or less) permanently closed, or were they closed recently for some special event? I walked by there yesterday for the first time in quite a while, and I was surprised to see those parks closed.

by NeilB on May 20, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Jersey barriers are ruining this country! Have you taken a road trip lately? Every bridge & highway has these ugly barriers & they are ruining our nations beautiful highways. We are devistated every time we take a trip. Someone please stop this hideus barrier from ruining this countryAlso why do we need so many signs? Do we realy need a sign to tell us everything? lol

by Ron Smith on Aug 26, 2013 8:01 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us