Recent global events have shown the horrifying impact that vehicle attacks can have on crowded public spaces — but securing these spaces doesn’t necessarily mean taking a “fortress” approach.
Rodger Watson, the deputy director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre (DOC) at the University of Technology in Sydney, says that public spaces can be designed to meet peoples’ needs and include strategies to protect against vehicle attacks and crashes.
“We could go into a problem like this and just lock everything down and take a risk management approach,” he told Jonathan Green on Blueprint for Living.
But that kind of approach can be detrimental to how much enjoyment and value people get from public spaces, Mr Watson says.
“We should be going about this in a way that creates amenable public spaces that are good to use, and attractive to use — but are also safe,” he says.
Are bollards a viable solution?
Over the past year, cities across Australia have installed bollards and barricades in popular public places, including Martin Place in Sydney, Rundle Mall in Adelaide, King George Square in Brisbane, and across Melbourne.
“Retrofitting is necessary in a lot of cases when you’re working with existing urban environments,” Mr Watson says.
“But when we are creating precincts, we now have the opportunity to design them in a way that not only creates great spaces for people to use, but also safe spaces.”
Mr Watson says that although bollards are “better than nothing”, they are a temporary solution.
And they can also be an imposing reminder for those going about their everyday lives of the potential threat posed to public safety.
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In June, artists in Melbourne responded to the installation of over 200 concrete bollards by decorating them with graffiti, knitted covers and other forms of art.
It can be seen as a way of reclaiming the space from an imposing and solemn reminder of potential danger, Mr Watson says.
And it’s this kind of response that highlights the importance of installing safety upgrades that are effective, but also reassuring.
“Some of the recent interventions that we’ve seen in Australia have really not created a feeling of safety,” Mr Watson says.
“And I think if we take a longer view around urban design, we can design safe spaces that are also publicly amenable.
“I really love what the community of Melbourne did in making the bollards their own, and using art to really soften them — so it is a balancing act.”
He points to friendlier ways of guarding public spaces from vehicle attack.
“We’re looking at the use of street furniture, even public art and natural occurrences in the landscape to reduce the risk,” Mr Watson says.
“The general garden variety planter box won’t really have any impact on a vehicle attack, but they can be designed in a way where they can.”
A problem-focused approach to design
When DOC director Kees Dorst studied the processes of expert designers, he discovered that to find new solutions to old problems, the focus has to be on the problem itself.
The centre applied this thinking to the issue of violent crime in Kings Cross in 2008 and 2013.
At its heart, the problem was that thousands of young people who wanted to have a good time were gathering in a limited space — but they weren’t particularly good it.
“That’s comparable to what you have at a music festival,” Mr Dorst says.
“So from that you can say: ‘OK, if we look at this as a music festival, what would you organise that maybe isn’t organised in Kings Cross?’
“And from that one metaphor of a music festival, there were about 35 different solution directions that all absolutely make sense.”
Simple solutions have a big impact
Before the Sydney Olympics in 2000, rubbish bins were removed from train stations as a way of addressing the growing terror threat.
It wasn’t a sustainable solution, as customers needed somewhere to dispose of their rubbish. So DOC was approached by counter-terrorism police for help.
“What we found was that a false alarm can bring down the entire Sydney train network for hours and indeed had done so,” Mr Watson says.
“So the real threat wasn’t necessarily a bomb — although we had to design with that in mind — the real threat was a false alarm.”
The solution was see-through rubbish bins, which regular patrons of Sydney trains will now know well.
The new bins allowed customers and workers to quickly identify potential threats, and were also designed to allow an X-ray slide to fit in the back, providing another way to identify anything suspicious.
Actually implementing simple solutions like this can be a complex process, particularly when there are many different groups of people to please — like commuters, tourists, businesses and government bodies.
So how can stakeholders collaborate to create a common safe space?
According to Mr Watson, finding common ground between public enjoyment, safety, and stakeholders’ goals is the most important step.
“What we’ve found is that finding the common good and the shared values in any situation is a really good starting point,” he says.