Perimeter Security Barrier Options
Witold Rybczynski argues that concrete “Jersey” barriers and similar obstacles are not only ugly but not the most effective at keeping us safe.
If generals train to fight the last war, then security consultants train to foil the last terrorist attack. How else to explain the millions of dollars that are being spent in our cities to thwart truck bombers? Surrounding public buildings with a variety of obstacles has become the obsession of homeland security units nationwide. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and in Oklahoma City two years later, the authorities had to do something. (Or did they merely have to be seen to be doing something?) That something turned out to be “perimeter security”: that is, stopping the putative truck bomber as far away from a building as possible. The New Jersey Median Barrier, invented in 1955, is designed to redirect a tractor-trailer going 60 mph, so it was a natural choice, or at least an expedient one. The problem is that huge hunks of reinforced concrete in city streets are not only an eyesore and an impediment to movement, they’re a blatant and unsightly expression of a siege mentality.
The alternatives to Jersey barriers are concrete planters: security plus beautification. These days there are so many planters on the streets of Washington, D.C., that the city resembles a horticultural show.
The best approach may be not to pretty it up but to make it disappear. The best current example surrounds the recently reopened Washington Monument. Several years ago, Congress mandated the National Park Service, which is responsible for the Mall, to secure the monument from truck-bomb attack, which required establishing a 400-foot security perimeter. Instead of deploying hundreds of security planters or bollards, the Olin Partnership, landscape architects, created the modern equivalent of a ha-ha, the hidden deer fence that was a common feature of 18th-century English estates. Olin’s ha-ha is an unobtrusive retaining wall that follows the paths that curve their way up the hill to the monument plaza. The low granite wall makes a convenient place to sit and is nice to look at. (It recalls Frederick Law Olmsted’s low garden walls at Capitol Hill.) That it also happens to be designed to stop a madman in a Hummer seems almost an afterthought.
I agree that the Washington Monument solution is preferable, although am not sure how it could be implemented in most situations. The building where I work, way out in Falls Church in commercial office space, is surrounded by ugly concrete flower pots. Unfortunately, we don’t have several hundred feet of soil between us and the road in order to construct a retaining wall.