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November 12, 2019
by Casie Kowalski, Becky Yurek, Frank Ball, Richard May, Fahir Burak Unel
On October 30, the AIANY Civic Leadership Program convened a panel exploring how barriers shape the public realm. Image credit: AIA New York.

New York City is investing billions of dollars to defend against emergent threats—protecting shorelines from sea level rise and intensifying storms and hardening streets, parks, and plazas against new types of attack. A common response has been to erect physical barriers to keep threats out and keep us safe. Some are permanent and others temporary, some purpose-built and others borrowed, but as these protective features accumulate, how do we understand their impact on our public realm?

To advance these questions, five members of the 2019 class of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) convened a panel of experts representing city government, art, and design to ask, “What conversations are we having around safety and design, and what conversations should we be having?” Using a town hall format, audience members, panelists, and the CLP explored the changing shape of the city in response to evolving threats. How can our choices enhance, rather than diminish, the civic nature of the public realm?

The event’s panelists included Sergeant Martin Wingert and Lieutenant Commander Bryan Vaughan of NYPD Counterterrorism; Emily Weidenhof, Director of Public Space at the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT); Nick Koster, Project Manager for Snøhetta’s Times Square Reconstruction; Borinquen Gallo, artist of the installation at the NYPD 40th Precinct Station House in the Bronx; Nancy Prince, Chief of Landscape Architecture at the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; and Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director at the Center for Active Design. The following excerpts capture some of the most salient points in the discussion.

How do we assess risk to understand whether our responses are appropriate? What is the role of trust?

Sergeant Martin Wingert: Community engagement is crucial—we want the community to be involved so they feel ownership over the space. When that happens, it reduces a lot of the things we typically worry about; it reduces criminal activity.

Emily Weidenhof: Vision Zero has given us an important way to quantify a certain kind of safety, but how do we quantify the added benefits of public space—a space that may be safer at night because it’s better lit, or programmed with activity, or has a kiosk that puts eyes on the street? How can we analyze the upfront and long-term costs of these assets to have a better conversation about risks and benefits.

How do physical barriers affect the way we perceive and use public space? How do we gauge their social impact?

Nancy Prince: When we think about the barriers we see for security, we need to think about how people circulate through a space. Barriers [for example] could turn a wide entrance into a narrow entrance…The devil is in the details when we look at these things—making barriers disappear…, making them as slim and narrow as they can be, so they fade into the background. If there’s room, make them into something. You don’t want people to perceive the barriers, that’s the real design challenge.

Suzanne Nienaber: We talk about physical barriers, but we should also consider the conceptual barriers that occur through design.…Our research in Charlotte focused on understanding if people feel welcome in a public space. Often, every single sign is telling people what not to do, setting up a barrier right away; this can be easily shifted by introducing more positive, whimsical messaging. We should recognize that whether there is a physical barrier in place, there can be a perceived barrier due to poor lighting, signage, litter, or other aspects. …There are methods we can use to make these spaces as welcoming and barrier-free as possible.

What conversations are artists and designers having about protection and design? How do the results differ when solutions are planned or reactive?

Nick Koster: The Times Square Reconstruction inadvertently had two phases of design and construction. The first, which closed Broadway and created the pedestrian plazas, had very open dialogues between all stakeholders concerning the protection of people…, resulting in a custom solution, specific to the needs of the project. The second phase was reactive or reactionary, responding to multiple vehicular attacks on pedestrians in our City. The NYPD had a strong vision for how to protect sidewalks and corners in high-traffic public spaces, and the Public Design Commission wanted to make sure new security measures didn’t diminish the design integrity of the reconstruction project that had just been completed. Design and security go together, but we’re coming at it from two very different lenses. In the end, it’s a conversation that needs to be had, and it’s not always easy.

Borinquen Gallo: It’s a delicate balance…The reactionary goal is to bring safety…and facilitate this utopia where the community and police can protect each other and foster the idea that preserving the fabric and safety of our society isn’t attributed to one body—it’s a collaborative process. The dialogue—heated arguments, assessing stereotypes—are part of the challenge that shapes the results of a project. Art is often enhanced by limitations and parameters that help with the design process.

It’s important to note that these questions, and the modern language of protection, aren’t new: bollards, fences, and barriers are all familiar streetscape elements, especially since 9/11. Yet their expanded deployment against contemporary threats can create new challenges, especially for those already excluded by the built environment. Instead of adding defensive layers to an already dense streetscape, what would a holistic security approach look like? What would it mean to leverage public safety infrastructure to enhance  the public realm?

These conversations are already underway. The NYC Public Design Commission is exploring security-related design research as part of their Designing New York series. DOT is evaluating how security measures work alongside other critical infrastructure. The Center for Active Design’s Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines provide a playbook for building trust and civic engagement through public space design.

As architects and citizens, and as stewards of the public realm, what role can we play in advancing thoughtful solutions to these challenges? It is through public platforms like these that we can begin to reframe our collective approach to safety, altering the way that we plan, design, and mandate security methods to ensure a multitude of public benefits.

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