ASLA Panel on Security Design

ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Washington Monument, Washington, DC. Olin Partnership. / image: ©Peter Mauss/Esto

ASLA hosted a panel of landscape architects to discuss the security design of public places on August 31, 2017. In view of recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Barcelona, and London, the panel examined the urgent need to ensure the public’s safety on public, government, and institutional properties. Key design goals and challenges were also addressed from various angles, with a special focus on how to provide an adequate balance between addressing threats and the beauty of the public realm. The virtual panel was recorded and can be viewed here.

The panel was moderated by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA, Washington, D.C., and featured three speakers: Bernie Alonzo, ASLA, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Seattle; Leonard Hopper, FASLA, Weintraub Diaz, LLC, Nyack, N.Y.; and Richard Roark, ASLA, OLIN, Philadelphia.

Below we highlight a few of the key discussion topics and takeaways, plus additional resources on security design.

Cost-Benefit Analyses

As designers of the public realm, landscape architects are at the forefront of addressing security design challenges. Site designs must balance encouraging free exchange and preserving the openness of public realm on the one hand, and reducing risk and keeping the public safe on the other. All security design moves must be carefully considered and weighed, as one move may help us in one place, but hurt us in another.

Despite the varied risks at play, circulation—of vehicles and pedestrians—is a key factor in many situations. One issue used to illustrate the cost-benefit analyses at play with security design challenges is vehicular turning radius and how that informs the width of streets and other streetscape features. A large turning radius for fire trucks allows first responders maximum access; however, this exposes more pedestrians to danger in those larger crosswalks.

Seattle has taken a different approach, with a Vision Zero plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on Seattle’s streets by 2030. To that end, Seattle is reducing corner turning radii to shorten crosswalk distances, prioritizing pedestrians, reducing vehicle speeds, and creating a safer environment for a larger number of people, demonstrating how good urban design can make people safer in their day to day lives. Streetscapes and design features that control the velocity of vehicles allow for a wider range of elements that can be used to restrict that vehicle, as there are more options available to restrict a slower vehicle.

Temporary vs. Permanent Measures

In addition to permanent design features, landscape architects must also consider what temporary measures may be applied effectively for spaces that are used for gathering only sometimes, and are open to regular traffic at other times. People must be adequately protected even during informal and temporary gatherings. For example, in streets that are temporarily closed to traffic for public use, we need to also think of the safety of people in those areas once the streets are closed. Attractive and innovative temporary measures are needed that will protect people in that space, and can then be removed.

ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Washington Monument, Washington, DC. Olin Partnership. / image: ©Peter Mauss/Esto

There have also been issues with Jersey barriers meant for temporary security being left in place and dominating the landscape, as with the Jersey barriers surrounding the Washington Monument for an extended period of time to protect against vehicular threats. To deal with those risks with such an iconic public space, the landscape architects had to consider what could be reasonably done to protect both the Monument and the public, without displacing the cultural and the civic realm. The challenge was to find the right design feature that protects and also enhances the space. OLIN came up with a design that borrowed from the historic landscape concept of a ha-ha wall. Now, most visitors have no idea that the elegant walkways around the Monument are in fact a security feature.

For the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol similarly used low walls around museum for vehicular security. The goal for landscape architects is to design in such a way that can help prevent major attacks and high-casualty incidents, but continue to promote expression of ideas and great public discourse.

Landscape Architects’ Security Design Toolkit

The threats of terrorism are manifold and always changing; our responses to them must be multi-faceted, versatile, and ever-evolving to promote resilience. And, landscape architects have the ability to creatively use innovative features that secures public safety without the public even knowing. Security can be made seamless, just a part of a beautiful setting.

One way to achieve this is to relate security design features to the history of the site. For example, a public space located on the site of an abandoned shipyard used artifacts left over from that previous usage as barriers to vehicles, and also used benches to separate vehicular areas from pedestrian areas. Elements that restrict access can at the same time provide amenities for users.

Using topography, boulders, and other site features to create physical but also aesthetically pleasing barriers are another way to integrate security into designs. Landscape architects should aim to create security with a variety of amenities that are multi-functional—elements should not be solely for security and nothing else.

Bollards are another security design feature that may be used judiciously. Their proliferation in some areas, like Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, where you may see acres of bollards, does not necessarily enhance the space. When used more carefully, as at the National Museum of the American Indian, bollards allow accessibility for pedestrians while acting as a barrier to vehicles without overwhelming the site. Hundreds of bollards all in a row as the only layer of security is not the best use of this feature; instead, they should be integrated into the site and not the sole means of security. Planters and boulders may also be used; however, some bollard alternatives can be worse than bollards themselves, like the wedge barrier or other more obtrusive pieces. Bollards are sometimes the right solution, and they are so ubiquitous people tend not to notice them. For the general population, they can disappear into the background.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Campus, Seattle, WA. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. Surrounding streetscapes and campus edges provide opportunities for public engagement. Campus materials and planting palette extends out to the street and security barriers are integrated into the benches and seat-walls. / image: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Challenges to Consider

State Department facilities—the United States’ embassies and consulates abroad—exemplify the central challenge at play with security design: these are spaces for people devoted to creating relationships, but they may also be operating under severe threat. Such places need to be fortified containers, but also offer a diplomatic appearance and degree of openness that allows diplomatic relationships to be forged and maintained. In some cases, over-protecting a space can be as problematic as not offering enough security. The many dangers present in any space should not devolve into paranoia.

The panelists maintained that public space access ultimately makes us less vulnerable because it allows people to know each other and function as a community, serves as a platform for mutual aid, and is the means by which you get to know your neighborhood and your city. Calling to mind Jane Jacobs’s eyes on the street concept, the panelists acknowledged that knowing each other, seeing each other, and experiencing the world publicly makes the world safer because we’re checking up on each other. Shared spaces are critically important to our social identities and communities, and in emergencies, the first responders are the people who are already there.

For More Information

To view the full recording of the panel:

ASLA symposium Safe Spaces: Designing for Security and Civic Values (2004) – abstracts available

The Dirt – security design posts

Landscape Architecture Magazinesecurity posts

International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association (CPTED)

GSA Site Security Design Guide

FEMA 430, Site and Urban Design for Security: Guidance against Potential Terrorist Attacks

Security and Site Design: A Landscape Architectural Approach to Analysis, Assessment and Design Implementation, by Leonard J. Hopper, FASLA, and Martha J. Droge

Landscape Architecture and the Site Security Design Process, Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG)

For those attending the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles this October, an education session will focus on this topic:

FRI-D01 – Hello. Goodbye. Protecting People, Objects, and Ideas
Friday, October 20, 3:30 – 5:00 PM
Creating secure spaces requires careful balance. Landscapes want to be open and inviting but must also function defensively—qualities that are seemingly at odds. This discussion will explore ways of designing for clients with high security needs through a variety of case studies, revealing strategies to achieve beautiful safe spaces.

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