Op-Ed: 'Ugly' Safety Measures Kill Public Spaces

Read Julia Vitullo-Martin's piece in USA Today

In cities like New York and Washington, D.C., Julia Vitullo-Martin complains, law enforcement and city planners have installed jersey barriers, concrete planters and other "ugly measures that evoke fear rather than safety." In her op-ed for USA Today she calls it "militarized urbanism."

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NEAL CONAN, host: And now the opinion page. The architectural adaptation that distinguishes the American city post-9/11 is the proliferation of Jersey barriers, the unlovely concrete walls used to redirect traffic, block off streets and protect buildings, part of what Julia Vitullo-Martin described as militarized urbanism. In a recent op-ed in USA Today, she argued that while we want our cities to be safe, we don't want to sacrifice beauty, energy and street life in the process.

How has your city changed since 9/11? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can find a link to her op-ed there too.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is director of Center for Urban Development at the Regional Planning Association. She joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And are we talking largely about a downtown phenomenon, where something might credibly present itself as a target?

VITULLO-MARTIN: We're frequently talking about downtown and central city phenomena, in the sense that those are the locations that are most likely to have the kind of large, attractive, iconic buildings that are thought to be the most ready and available objects of terrorism. But we aren't exclusively talking about downtowns. This phenomenon of militarized urbanism, which really refers to the tendency of all sorts of property owners - not just the federal government, but all sorts of public and private property owners - to try to secure their space, and sometimes space they don't own, through these militaristic devices like Jersey barriers, and bollards, and closing streets and closing off formerly public areas.

CONAN: Bollards are those big concrete planters, basically, that are also used to protect buildings, presumably, from would-be car bombs.

VITULLO-MARTIN: That's right.

CONAN: And those big planters, too, and chain-link fences. Here in Washington, D.C., for example, part of Pennsylvania Avenue, the part in front of the White House has been closed off.

VITULLO-MARTIN: That's right.

CONAN: And some people would say, well, wait a minute, eliminating traffic from there, suddenly it's a pedestrian plaza.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, it is and isn't a pedestrian plaza. Pedestrians are frequently closed off, as well, from the White House. I mean, that's happened to me several times when I've been in Washington. And it's not just the White House and the Capitol that are subject to militarized urbanism - it's all sorts of neighborhoods in Washington and in other cities, almost any place that an important dignitary or, you know, would-be dignitary, goes to and secures some kind of police protection.

CONAN: So architects, obviously, and city planners do have to take into account security. You quote in your piece a well-known architect says, we can never forget 9/11. It's going to be part of everything we do from now on.

VITULLO-MARTIN: That's right. And even though my piece attacks militarized urbanism - and I think we all should be extremely wary of permitting further invasions of security into our cities - 9/11 did have the effect of getting architects and developers and owners to really think about how to secure their buildings when they're putting the buildings up in the first place. And how to make those buildings as safe as possible, so that ugly devices aren't needed afterwards.

CONAN: And give us an example. We've been talking about chain-link fences and Jersey barriers as examples of things that are not very - a good response to this. But give us an example of something that did work.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, for example, the - what used to be called the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero on downtown New York, One World Trade Center, which is now nearing completion. That building was redesigned to make it as safe as possible. And some of the things that were done, such as increasing the width of the emergency staircases and changing the air distribution systems so that it would be much less vulnerable to attack, improve the building and make it safer and are very unobtrusive.

Now, on the other hand, there is a problem at One World Trade that I don't think has been solved yet, and that is that the NYPD insisted upon a concrete barrier of 185 feet at the base of the building, and that was to be covered with a very attractive glass, and that glass proved very difficult to manufacture. So the architect has to go back to the drawing board on that one. But the point is, the architect and the owner are thinking about these things now and not later.

CONAN: We're talking with Julia Vitullo-Martin, the author of "Militarized Urbanism Chokes U.S. Cities" in USA Today. We'd like to hear how 9/11 changed your city, especially your downtown. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We should also point out, in your piece you argued that, in fact, a lot of the predictions after 9/11 did not come true.

VITULLO-MARTIN: That's right. After 9/11, many prominent commentators, maybe even most prominent commentators, urged people to leave cities and leave New York in particular, and also urged that we call a halt to the building of very large or iconic buildings because these would attract terrorism. And in fact, just the opposite has happened. Americans have poured into their cities, and we've seen increases in population in New York, in L.A., in Houston, in Chicago, and that's great. And of course, owners and developers have continued to build large buildings. One World Trade Center, when it's completed at 1,776 feet, will be the largest building in America.

CONAN: And it will be pretty much rented out too.

VITULLO-MARTIN: And it will be pretty much rented out. And by the way, it's a great comfort in all of this that, yes, it will be rented out, so the market is responding very well. And 30 percent of it is going to be rented to Conde Nast, and you know, the publisher of Vogue, et cetera. And Conde Nast was a very important force in rejuvenating Times Square, which is where it is right now. And more important to our subject, Conde Nast is going to be visited, as it always has been, by immensely important and probably rather touchy people who will expect to be very well treated. So that means that the owners and managers of One World Trade Center will have to be thinking right now about security that works and that is also unobtrusive and polite.

CONAN: Yet those are new buildings and, as you say, they can be designed with security in mind. There are things - if you own the World - the Empire State Building, obviously the other iconic skyscraper in Manhattan, you're going to have to do some things - can you retrofit your building?

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, you know, that's really an interesting question, and interesting that you bring up the Empire State Building. I was just in there yesterday. It is such a wonderful building. It's actually just as open to the public as it's ever been. So you know, you have to go through security to go to the upper floors, but you can walk to that magnificent lobby. You can go from one entrance to the next. And you know, to the naked eye, it looks like 9/11 never happened.

CONAN: We're talking with Julia Vitullo-Martin about militarized urbanism and the design of our centers and the proliferation of Jersey barriers to protect buildings and redirect traffic. What's happened in your city? 800-989-8255. Let's go to Mike. Mike's on the line from Ypsilanti in Michigan.

MIKE: Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MIKE: I'm wondering what you think about sousveillance and surveillance, closed circuit, as architecture and how you consider that possibly as architecture.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, we have a whole lot less surveillance in this country than they have in European cities and in Asian and Middle Eastern cities. So that's point number one. Point number two, surveillance in London, for example, I think has been quite a good thing because it has enabled them to put up new buildings and still give - for example, on the waterfront, on the Thames - and still give tremendous public access because their, what we think of in America as very aggressive use of CCTV and all sorts of surveillance technology, unobtrusive for the most part, that has allowed them to permit public access onto private property without being worried about increases in crime.

CONAN: So you're talking about Canary Wharf, for example.

VITULLO-MARTIN: You know, I wasn't talking about Canary Wharf. I was really talking about South Bank, but Canary Wharf is a very nice example as well. You know, you can walk all over Canary Wharf. Yeah.

CONAN: Mike?

MIKE: Yes.

CONAN: Does surveillance bother you?

MIKE: No. There's actually the new movement of what's called sousveillance which is open-source closed circuit. I'm picking my kids up. I apologize.

CONAN: That's all right. You don't have to apologize for picking your kids up. We're all in favor of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We'll let you deal with your immediate situation there. Julia Vitullo-Martin is our guest, and she is director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Regional Plan Association. She joins us from our bureau in New York on the opinion page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Daniel on the line. Daniel with us from Savannah.

DANIEL: Hi there. I'm calling (unintelligible) Savannah, Georgia. I spend half my time in Toronto and Tel Aviv. And obviously the buildings in Tel Aviv are under tremendous scrutiny in regards to security because of the nature of where it's located. But what I was shocked to find is the influx of security in Toronto, in Canada where I live.

CONAN: And is there a way to repair it, do you think?

DANIEL: It's a really good question. In this post-9/11 world, I would have to say that it's going to take a long time. Time heals all wounds, I'd say, but the security phenomenon that has sort of taken over since 9/11, it'll be here for a while, I think.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Can I ask what you're talking about in particular? What is it that bothers you the most?

DANIEL: I really - it really bothers me, just shopping malls, going out, having to be around security guards all the time. That sort of thing is - can be aggravating, especially in Toronto. We're used to it more in Tel Aviv, as I'm sure you can appreciate.

CONAN: And this is concern for suicide vest explosions, that sort of thing?

DANIEL: Oh, in Tel Aviv, absolutely. The season of the suicide bomber happened - 9/11 happened amidst the season of suicide bomber, where security in Tel Aviv was stepped up, so...

CONAN: Right. Daniel, thanks very much. This is a situation which is - the surveillance may do some of that, but uniformed security officers are going to be part of that for the foreseeable future. I think he's right.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, he's absolutely right. There are also things that - there are modifications in behavior that uniformed security officers can do to help us all. And, excuse me, and one is to - we really need security officers to be very well trained in dealing with the public and in being courteous.

So, for example, at New York City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg, who had reopened City Hall Park to the public - you can walk through that again, anybody can walk through it, which is very nice, lovely park, Mayor Bloomberg has nonetheless left security on access to City Hall itself. But it is very polite and unobtrusive security, and the NYPD cops who man the kiosk are just as polite and as elegant as you could ask for from anyone, and I think especially in routine security that's really important.

CONAN: Email from Jim Turner in Rocklin, California: I live in the Sacramento area. After 9/11, the road that led past the Folsom Dam was closed, resulting in the loss of miles of lakeside parks, closure of dozens of businesses that had no customers, and it has still not reopened. And let's see if we can get Caroline(ph) on the line. Caroline with us from Anchorage in Alaska.

CAROLINE: Yes. Good morning. In Alaska, it'd be almost impossible to build those kind of barricades. People are so independent. But I'm wondering if it's beginning to look in some cities like East Germany and in Russia. And a follow-up is real quick, the encouragement of people to move out of cities, did that drive land prices down and be a benefit for those who had the money to purchase?

VITULLO-MARTIN: Well, to start with the last question, absolutely not. Land prices in New York have just skyrocketed since 2001. And that has also happened in LA, Chicago, Miami, Boston, London, Paris. So alas, no. Let me jump to Sacramento, though, for just one moment and the dam question, because that particular issue - maybe they were right to close the street, to close the road past the dam. But these decisions all need to be rethought and rethought often and the impulse on the part, especially, I think, of the federal government, is to close streets, close roads, close access, close public parks, and then never even consider the reopening of those, never considered the possibility that maybe circumstances have changed and something should be reopened. And I'm sorry. The - what was the other question on Alaska?

CONAN: The question is whether - well, she said it would be unlikely to be able to put up barriers there because people are so independent-minded but...

VITULLO-MARTIN: Yes, and good for independent Alaskans. That's really an important point. We have to fight for our cities, and our mayors have to fight for our cities. And it's very good to be independent and to question every single Jersey barrier that goes up in your neighborhood.

I'd like to particularly point out Mayor Daly in Chicago, who, you know, he was the mayor of one of the most beautiful cities in America, and he made it even more beautiful, and there was no way he was going to let property owners, public or private, push him around and make his city ugly after 9/11, so he really fought hard to make sure that security measures were as unobtrusive and as good looking as possible, and that makes the difference.

CONAN: Caroline, thanks very much for the call.

CAROLINE: You're very welcome. Excellent topic.

CONAN: And, Julia Vitullo-Martin, thank you very much for your time today.

VITULLO-MARTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Julia Vitullo-Martin joined us from our bureau in New York. There's a link to her piece "Militarized Urbanism Chokes U.S. cities" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the debate over single-sex classrooms picks up again. We'll talk with teachers. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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