How to create safe spaces without sacrificing great design

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CEO | Chief Innovation Officer

A good public space is accessible, safe and welcoming to all. It is a democratic and unbiased space for people to gather and spend time outside in their cities.

Unfortunately, in today’s social climate, a successful public space full of people lounging, lunching and busking can be seen as a target for people intending to cause harm to others. With vehicle attacks on pedestrians occurring in London, Paris, Charlottesville and Toronto, landscape architects are increasingly being tasked with incorporating security measures into their designs.

Increased security can be achieved in multiple ways, the most obvious approach is to create physical barricades (concrete barriers or bollards) that separate the vehicle realm from the pedestrian realm. The issue with this tactic is that these glaring security measures act as a constant reminder of the risk that may exist. So, how can we increase security without losing the beauty that makes our public spaces so successful?

Dr A.H. McCoy Federal Office, Alamo Plaza Interpretive Master Plan, and the Washington Monument Revitalization are three examples of projects that seamlessly integrated security measures to successfully balance the circulation needs of both vehicles and pedestrians, while enhancing the overall experience of the landscape:

Examples of beautiful and safe design

Dr A.H. McCoy Federal Office, Jackson, Mississippi

The design team was tasked with modernizing the existing building and creating a Security Pavilion that would act as a secure and accessible entrance. The structure and plaza would reach out towards the corner of the site, creating an inviting environment that redefines “the relationship between the city and the federal government at this site”.

Being a federal building, the security requirements for the employees and the visitors are strict. However, despite the demanding security needs, there are few visible security measures in the public space. The pavilion has been elevated and set back farther from the street than typical, allowing for more controlled access, either by stairs or a ramp area. Raised sculptural planting areas create a physical barrier without making the plaza feel like a fortress. As well, built-in concrete seat walls undulated with the planting areas provide additional protection and also offer a variety of seating choices.

The design successfully created an accessible and welcoming plaza and entrance that utilized the security requirements as an opportunity to create a varied and exciting pedestrian experience.

Alamo Plaza Interpretive Master Plan, San Antonio, Texas

The Alamo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is visited by millions of tourists each year. Gary Hilderbrand, one of the designers, explains that the current site has not been treated well over time and the approval of the master plan has been a 20-year-long process. The plan will increase the boundaries of the historic district, create pedestrian-only areas and strengthen the edges of the historic core.

The proposed changes are intended to preserve the history of the site, improve the public experience and increase security. Vehicles will not be permitted in areas at certain times, with the Alamo Plaza being converted into a pedestrian-only street during the day. Access to these pedestrian areas can now be controlled and provide safety from vehicle traffic.

Even though completely removing vehicles is not appropriate for the entire site, they proposed that in the garden area “four-feet-tall walls [could hide vehicles] amid greenery to lessen their visual impact”. To preserve the original Mission boundary, the surrounding area will be slightly built up, so the historic site appears to be lower. Access to this lower area can then be controlled through ramps and stairs and is protected without the use of physical barriers.

Hildebrand’s intention for the master plan is to “create a reverential site where visitors can explore interpretive elements covering 300 years of history while accommodating the bustling life of the contemporary city” and the security challenges that go along with it.

Washington Monument Revitalization, Washington, DC

The iconic Washington Monument and surrounding grounds “play a vital cultural role, providing a public space for demonstrations, celebrations, entertainment and recreation for millions of people each year” (4). After 9/11, there was an increased need for security and temporary concrete jersey barriers were installed around the grounds, remaining in place for years.

OLIN, a landscape architecture firm, was tasked with revitalizing the grounds and “from the outset of the project, [their] design intent was to determine how best to turn an anti-terrorist defence project into a welcoming civic space” (4). The final design is minimal and respectful to the historic site. Accessibility, circulation, lighting, and the history of the site were all addressed along with the main focus of increased security defence from potential vehicle and bomb attacks.

As the monument is on a hill, preserving the views of the National Mall and surrounding landscape were critical. Low granite retaining walls now surround the site to control vehicle access without creating any visible barrier from the monument. This subtle design tactic was “borrowed from the historic landscape concept of a ha-ha wall” commonly used to control livestock without visible vertical fencing.

OLIN received an American Society of Landscape Architecture Professional Award in 2008 for this project, and one of the jury comments aptly described the design as an “elegant solution to a tremendous problem”.


Although I do think the above projects are successful examples of seamless integration of security measures, I selected them mostly because there are very few examples to choose from. Each project was discussed at a panel or conferences, focusing on this topic, where the designers presented some, but not all of their processes. Moreover, looking at each firm’s respective website, there was no mention of the security features in the design. But of course, this makes sense, if you are totally transparent, then some of the security elements could become less effective.

While I haven’t addressed social planning, community-building or the use of technology in the above projects, many other approaches have the potential to be successful.

The examples provided were all high-profile projects that need to be protected from potential terrorist threats. Still, the attack in Charlottesville happened on a city street, and the attack in Toronto happened at an intersection and sidewalk in a business district. Cities, developers and designers need to consider how to ensure all of our public spaces remain safe and accessible for all of us.

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