Over the last twenty to thirty years, the UK’s biggest cities have known terrorism. Notable examples include the IRA’s bombing of Bishopsgate in 1993 and Manchester’s Arndale Centre in 1996. Prior to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, that city had borne much of the brunt of terrorist activity relating to Northern Ireland.
But things change. Since the Belfast Agreement, for example, a renewed sense of optimism and progress pervades the city, with Lonely Planet naming Belfast and its surrounding areas as the best place to visit in 2018. This is clear evidence that a city’s reputation for safety and security can change for the better.
However, terrorism has also changed and we have seen a shift over the last decade in the methods used for such attacks. The increase in high-profile, low-tech attacks from both Islamist and far-right extremists, such as vehicle crashes, homemade bombs and stabbings, has been described as a significant threat to the public, and these present constantly evolving challenges to UK cities’ counter-terrorism forces.
In 2040 it is realistic to expect that UK cities will remain an occasional target for terrorist attacks, especially London given its many high-profile locations and its status as the nation’s capital and centre of Government.
The targets for these attacks are usually public, crowded places. From an urban planning perspective, these spaces are difficult to protect in order to reduce the risk of attack without drastically altering how we experience our cities. But cities are changing the way in which they deal with these attacks, and they will become increasingly resilient as city design and surveillance are used as preventative measures.
In the aftermath of the 7/7 central London bombings and the London Bridge attacks, steel barriers and crash-rated bollards were installed around Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. Urban planning and design interventions seem likely to significantly increase in number around the biggest targets.
These counter-terrorism measures are not always as glaringly obvious as steel barriers. According to Chris Phillips, Head of the UK Government’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, bus stops, hardened street furniture, planted trees, and even artwork have been mapped out in cities as means of protecting the public space from attacks without appearing obtrusive.
These particular design interventions provide a hostile vehicle mitigation function with ‘designs capable of stopping a seven-ton truck traveling at 50 miles per hour’. Non-invasive but effective, they blend into our cities’ natural landscape without looking or feeling harsh and aggressive.
One such example is the fortified concrete letters outside Arsenal football stadium. The artwork has become a firm photo opportunity for fans while serving as a safety barrier that protects the pedestrian space outside the stadium from vehicles.
The newly built US embassy in London also demonstrates the effectiveness of design elements. At its old site in Mayfair their embassy posed the visual impression that the space was protected with high security fences and armed guards. The new build in Nine Elms has proven how landscaping and design can protect a space without the need for obvious defence which can look imposing and give the impression of the fear of an attack. The building boasts a moat and carefully planted trees acting as a natural barrier to entry.