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.

I Came, Eyesore, I Conquered – Perimeter security is ugly and may not keep us safe (Slate)

Photo: Jersey barrier 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.


Photo: Washington Monument retaining wallThe 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Establishing set-backs from roadways and streets has been the cause of many, many new building projects for US embassies and other official buildings abroad.

    One attempt at providing better security was been the “Inman embassy,” which essentially turns the building into a bunker. Small windows, thick walls outside the building, very thick walls in the building. But even six feet of concrete can be breached if you use a powerful enough explosive.

    They’ve also starting moving embassies from prime, downtown real estate to suburban locations where they can find the set-back space. This may be a wash economically as downtown properties can sell for a lot of money, enough to buy bigger properties in a less desirable area. But there’s another cost, too…

    An embassy has a very public function, both for Americans abroad and the nationals of the country. Make it difficult for people to get there and you can guarantee that they won’t bother trying. This rather defeats the whole point.

    It also sends a message to the publics that we might not necessarily want.

  2. RA says:

    If I wanted to get a truck bomb over that puny little wall, it would take about 180 seconds to put in place a prefab ramp that would allow a truck to jump this little obstacle. It could be done by a different truck and no one would think anything about it. Safe is better than pretty.

  3. I don’t think it would take even 180 seconds. Just carry planks on the top of the, for instance, Hummer. Drive it up to the barrier, drop the planks, back up, drive over the wall. What they could use is a series of large, tall planters arranged in a maze shape without enough space between any of them to drive a truck through. But, even that could be breached by several people on motorcycles. Between them they couldn’t carry a ton, but they might carry enough to do damage.

  4. Herb says:

    About five years ago, my 34 year old son was his first day of a new job of driving a semi truck from Ohio to Nebraska, He was accompanied by a training driver. (it was his first run). and that was common procedure. About two and one half miles from his destination in Omaha Nebraska, A gravel truck coming from the opposite direction on the Interstate highway, in a construction zone, (55 MPH Speed limit) lost control, smashed through twelve of these concrete barriers, crossed the muddy median strip, then crashed into the truck my son was in. The training driver was behind the wheel and my son was in the sleeper sleeping. The crash resulted in a fire on the truck my son was in. The training driver got out of the truck but was seriously burned, my son was trapped in the sleeper and was burned alive. The Nebraske State Police Saggent who investigated the accident stated to me “The gravel truck was not speeding”