Security Policy and Urban Policy: Uncomfortable Bedfellows

David Meni, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Here’s a thought experiment: if the US capital were planned and built from scratch today, what would it look like? Would we still have the Paris-inspired streets of the L’Enfant Plan, or the dense neoclassical government buildings of Federal Triangle? Since the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing of a federal building and the renewed terrorist threats of the 21st century, federal buildings’ increased security and counterterrorism efforts have often created a salient tension between security and urban policy.  Zoning ordinances, design practices, and security policies have adjusted to new threats but appear to be at odds with the ethos of historic government buildings: reinforced concrete planters create a haphazard barrier around many downtown buildings, and the security perimeter around the White House is ever-expanding.

Counterterrorism policy and the creation of vibrant urban places do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts. However, while policy makers and urban planners are still experimenting with the best responses to terrorism, increased security at federal buildings can often come at the expense of urban economic development. Making security and urbanism compatible is not an impossible task, but it will require creative problem-solving.

Several case studies explore security and urban life, assessing whether the two can be compatible.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)

Figure 1: A Model of the ATF Building (Source: lynnbecker)

One might be hard pressed to find a more poignant physical embodiment of America’s attitudes towards security in the 21st century than the ATF building. It sits ponderously next to the NoMa Metro Station. As its many critics have pointed out, the building looks and acts more like a fortress than a downtown federal office building: from three of four sides, the ATF presents a row of bollards (those short security posts, designed to stop a vehicle), then tall iron fences, then a high security colonnade. Then there is a “moat” of a well-landscaped but inaccessible garden, and behind all that sits the actual building, far removed from the rest of the city. There is a small strip of low-slung retail along 2nd street, but it comes off as an afterthought, perhaps only there because it is across the street from a busy metro stop.

The central problem with the ATF building design is that it anticipated the highest security needs and tackled them through permanent features rather than adaptable policy or practice. In doing so, the building presents an oppressive front to some of the city’s busiest corridors.

Ironically, having the large barricade facing New York Avenue may shut out long-term opportunities for increased security at the ATF. The General Services Administration (GSA) states in its security design guidelines that “direct run-up” — such as the multiple open parking lots around the ATF’s northern side — can create a vulnerability; in its inhospitable design, the ATF has actually made it harder to alter the land use of these parking lots surrounding it.

The General Services Administration (GSA)

Figure 2: Rendering of GSA Renovation, View From E Street (Source: NCPC, Greater Greater Washington)

The counterpoint to ATF’s fortress is GSA’s own building, located in Foggy Bottom.  Built in 1917, the structure takes up a whole city block, and until recently had no interaction with local residents or businesses. However, recent renovations to the building set out with a goal of “planning federal workplaces to be compatible with the character of the surrounding properties and community and, where feasible, to advance local planning objectives such as neighborhood revitalization.”

To achieve this, the GSA created a “graduated security” system, where not all areas required top-level security; this actually allowed for the removal of perimeter bollards and security features, and created new street-front retail for public use.

Not all federal agencies are the same — the public’s interaction with the ATF is more frequent and adversarial than with the GSA. However, the GSA renovation shows that innovative approaches to security practices can create more defined urban environments while still meeting security needs. Many of the practices used in the GSA renovation and security status update were also utilized in the new Department of Transportation building, which has anchored development in DC’s rapidly-growing Navy Yard area.

The City of London’s “Ring of Steel”

Though constructed in response to IRA bombings in the early 1990s, the “Ring of Steel” surrounding the City of London — London’s business and finance center — has much in common with responses to security threats in the US. The “ring” is composed of bollards, checkpoints, and street closures much like those seen in DC; however, the Ring of Steel is more systematic and considerably more hidden. It surrounds a whole area of central London — rather than individual buildings — and security features were designed to blend in as much as possible with their surroundings.

Figure 3: A Map of Security Features in The Ring of Steel (Source: mascontext)

To do this, the City of London closed off a number of roads leading into the city center, allowing for more direct monitoring of limited entry points. Many areas that were once entry streets were zoned for new buildings directly on top of the old roadway. In other places, entry was limited only to pedestrians by using bollards and checkpoints. On the one hand, this approach presents a unified wall of buildings and increased pedestrian access instead of sterile concrete walls or moats. On the other hand, the Ring of Steel raises concerns of inclusivity and privacy — the extant entryways are all monitored with CCTV cameras, and the increased security, while mostly invisible to the eye, creates an overall feeling that the City of London is only for people to conduct business there.

The FBI’s Relocation

When it comes to land use and design, counterterrorism efforts and robust urban development can often be uncomfortable bedfellows. Nowhere has this been more clear in the DC area than in the ongoing deliberation over the FBI’s relocation. The much-maligned Hoover Building, despite being located in the middle of DC’s central business district, was designed with a wide trench of concrete surrounding it. In looking for a new headquarters, the FBI is requesting a 350-foot “security buffer zone;” were the Bureau to stay where it currently is, this buffer zone would essentially require the demolition of six blocks of downtown DC. In searching for a new location for the FBI, the question now is whether the it will promote good transit-oriented development practices, or whether it will continue the trend of ever more isolated, fortress-like federal buildings.

The Continued Tension Between Security and Urban Policy

As long as there are threats to cities, landmarks, and federal buildings, there will always be the need for enhanced security policies. However, current policy like the Department of Homeland Security guidelines for assigning federal building security levels has little consideration of neighborhood context, essentially treating federal buildings as if they are in a vacuum. Despite being nearly 100 pages, the DHS guidelines assess security needs based on vague criteria like Symbolism, and don’t allow for the kind of flexibility that made the GSA renovation possible.  With more holistic policy, there are ways to make designing buildings for counterterrorism symbiotic with opportunities for neighborhood development and vitality.

We will never know what DC would have looked like had it been planned with the counterterrorism and security needs of the 21st century: Perhaps it would resemble the land use patterns of Silicon Valley, with federal centers looking more like self-contained tech campuses. However, with the right policy and design choices, federal buildings can adapt to new security threats while being a force for good for cities — as they are — both in DC and across the country.

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