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Our second Science Talk in 2022 was a panel discussion on how architecture can be used to make urban spaces safer. Do we need security measures, and should they be visible or integrated? How does this affect openness and comfort? This taps into the larger question: What kind of cities do we want to live in?


At the Science Talk ”Transforming Urban Spaces: Physical Security by Design and Function” two basic questions were discussed: How can a focus on architecture help us transform open spaces to secure sites, without causing public concern? And what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of thinking multi-functionality into security measures?

To address these questions we were joined by landscape architect MAA Jørgen Becker-Christensen, Schønherr, Stine Ilum, Ph.D. fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen and SLA, and Security Advisor Karin Castro, DBI – The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology, who moderated the talk.

The discussion ranged from very specific questions to the broader themes of what kind of cities we want to live in. The different backgrounds and insights from the panelists ensured a broad discussion on how we can make sure our urban spaces stay open and democratic, while also integrating security as part of the cityscape.

Different Approaches to Security Measures

One of the first themes the panelists touched upon was the visibility of security measures. When discussing security in urban spaces it often comes down to the effect various measures have on the people using the space on an everyday basis – does it cause public concern or elevated fear? Does it make people feel safer?

“From an aesthetic point of view,” says landscape architect Jørgen Becker-Christensen, “an integrated design solution could minimize the visibility of security by using existing features in the urban spaces and implementing security measures into those. But sometimes we do have to tell people that they are safe, so it’s not always a good thing to remove every aspect of security measures.”

Ph.D. fellow Stine Illum agrees that it’s not such an easy question to answer: “I think this is the question I’ve been asked the most during my research. There’s a lot of guesswork involved. I don’t think there is a yes or no answer to this, and if someone has a very clear answer, I think you should know that there are many interests at stake when it comes to this question. But the primary instigator of fear of terrorism is the media. We have a constant flow of communication about terrorism, and the very visible security measures add to that communication. So, I would say it’s good to minimize this extreme amount of communication about terrorism.”

Stine Illum goes on to elaborate on the statistics on the subject. The perceived risk of terrorist attacks in cities is a lot higher than the actual risk, which is very, very low. People do not have a constant fear, but it’s usually sparked by being near places that resemble attack sites in other cities: “Security measures seem to play a much lesser role than these types of spaces and the broader aesthetic,” says Stine Illum.

Another criticism towards security measures is that they tend to interrupt or stand out in everyday urban life. Many security measures are made to be a hindrance to a potential attacker, but it shouldn’t become a hindrance for the people using the space and living in the cities, says Jørgen Becker-Christensen:

“I would like to take a step back when we have this discussion because often, we address this based on the current situation. We need to address this early on and use tools for the overall planning, so we are ahead of this. By doing that we can achieve a better goal, so we don’t end up only securing these specific areas but take it into the complete design and minimize the more standard solutions. If you take this step back and look at the overall planning, you can make sure you have a living city but also protect the city. For me, that is the good design.”

What are We Trying to Protect?

Taking a step back seemed to be a general trend at the Science Talk. To better answer the question of which security measures to use, the panelists brought up other questions such as what areas you should protect, what makes people feel safe, and even: is it necessary to take these extra measures?

“With a potential counter-terrorism project,” says Stine Illum, “the first question is: is this necessary or not? Can we prioritize our funds and our work in a better way somewhere else? You should always consider the possibility of not installing security measures because the risk is small.” Jørgen Becker-Christensen adds:

“For some reason, we think we should protect every part of the city or every urban space, but of course, we shouldn’t. Maybe the need is even more specific so that it could be incorporated into a given building or a more restricted area. I think in Denmark we have a very democratic way of thinking about our urban spaces, our approach to aesthetics and architecture, and the way we live. It should all reflect that. Security measures can easily become a kind of hindrance – it restricts personal freedom.”

The question of security should thus be part of the larger question of what kind of city, we want to live in, what kind of public spaces we want to inhabit, and what kind of everyday life we want to protect. When you can answer those questions, you can develop security measures accordingly. This also means that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to security measures. Stine Illum says:

“Working with security is always a work of dilemmas. I think that a more general question such as what kind of city we want, or what kind of everyday life do we want helps you weigh out those different dilemmas, and the earlier in the process the better, because then you think about those fundamental questions.”

Stine Illum notes that another factor in developing security measures is that nobody wants to be the one who said no to more security if a terrorist attack should happen. But someone has to take that responsibility. Jørgen Becker-Christensen agrees:

“When the security decision is an addon that comes late in the process, it’s usually more as a political statement. It’s difficult for us as consultants to say to the client: you shouldn’t do it’ because it’s their money. But maybe we also have in the back of our minds that if we say they shouldn’t do it and then something happens, it falls back on us. We need to move the way we think about this.”

This was only a selection of the themes touched upon in the second Science Talk of 2022. You can see the entire talk on our YouTube and listen to the panelists discuss certifications, sustainability, materials, risk assessments, and whether it’s possible to think like a terrorist.

Stine Illum was part of the BLOXHUB  Smart City Research Network running from 2017-2020, and you can watch a video about her research here or read about it here

All Science Talks of 2022 have the theme “Regenerate”, which you can read more about in this interview with one of the industrial researchers from our Circular Built Environment Network. Stay updated on upcoming talks in our event calendar.