London, Paris, Stockholm, Brussels, Manchester and Nice – the list of cities hit by terrorism continues to grow by the month. While this has seen volumes of page space devoted to try and explain the reasons behind the carnage, scant attention has been given to the use of urban design as an anti-terror weapon. But what if we could use smart design and architectural innovation to help prevent this scourge? Could better urban design help in the fight against global terror?

The concept of attenuating public space to improve public safety is nothing new. Ever since ‘The Troubles’ of the 1970s and 80s, the UK has changed and redesigned parts of Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland a bid to better cope with future IRA attacks.

As for the US, since September 11, 2001, America’s architects have been on a steep learning curve on how to balance between designing for aesthetics and designing for public safety.

Today this scenario has more resonance considering that since 2007, more people than ever in human history are residing in urban centres as opposed to rural ones. By 2050, it has been estimated that up to 75 percent of the global population will be classified as being urban.

This massive increase in urban habitation invariably means an increase in high-density living. The irony being of course, when it comes to public safety and social cohesion, high-rise and high-density structures rarely make the list of final designs.


In New York City, one popular public safety feature has been the addition of bollards to many public spaces. But these were not just any old bollards – in the city’s famed financial district, these bespoke bollards are designed to be also used as street furniture and aesthetic enhancements.

However, while it’s easier to redesign (or re-engineer) a relatively simple item like a bollard – entire buildings, and for that matter, whole neighbourhoods, are a very different proposition.

Considering the need for safety usually trumps most other human needs, perhaps it’s time to consider combining the need for beauty with the need for safety especially in an era that bears the burden of the “ugliness of terrorism”.

At the same time, it should not be all bland function over beauty and form. Last year, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Ruth Reed, highlighted RIBA’s ‘counter-terrorism design guidelines’ and noted that it was “important to remember that we are an open and inclusive society”. In terms of architectural design, she claims we shouldn’t be “driven by security measures”.


In their 2008 study Integrating counter-terrorist resilience into sustainability, in conjunction with Loughborough University, British researchers Jon Coffee and Lee Bosher found there was an opportunity to design for both public safety and environmental sustainability.

“The rapid renaissance of central urban areas in the last decade has given ample opportunities to apply such resilient principles to the construction of new buildings or regeneration areas, facilitated by changes in building regulations and the planning system concerned with broader issues of safety and sustainability,” said the researchers.

Furthermore, Coffee and Bosher found that “a resilient built environment should be designed, located, built, operated and maintained in a way that maximises the ability of built assets, associated support systems (physical and institutional) and the people that reside or work within the built assets, to withstand, recover from, and mitigate for the impacts of extreme natural and human-induced hazards.”

It was, they said, all about ‘embedding’ safety and sustainability into a proposed building design.

This has been acknowledged in the UK and undertaken by both government departments and research councils, where policy advances in countering crime and terrorism within the context of environmental sustainability and ‘resilience’ most notably includes the Sustainable and Secure buildings Act (2004).

“This act, along with a set of building regulations, has been developed to further the conservation of fuel and power, prevent waste, undue consumption, misuse or contamination of water, further the protection or enhancement of the environment, facilitate sustainable development and/or further the prevention or detection of crime or terrorism.

“The Act also meant that for the first time the physical security of buildings was legislated for. To date, however, in practice there has been a far greater focus on the ‘greening’ of buildings than on embracing the requirements of security,” they noted.

Both concluded that what was needed was a much greater integration of sustainability and security as the key underlying principles of the built environment, and while they found these goals can sometimes be diametrically opposed, at other times, they might work together.

In the end, the researchers said, “importance should be placed on identifying the barriers that restrict the opportunities to integrate security and energy efficient measures in the built environment.”


Writing in The Conversation, Thomas Fisher, director of the Metropolitan Design Centre, said architects should design buildings and public spaces with a decentralised structure –  a configuration much like the terror groups themselves – in order to defeat them.

“Centralised, hierarchical systems may appear stronger, with more power and efficiency on their side. But networked, non-hierarchical ones have much greater capacity to take a hit and to keep functioning, as the sizable literature on ecosystem resilience has repeatedly shown,” wrote Fisher.

One of Fisher’s most salient points concerns the concentration of targets for the terrorists.

“In some ways, the 9/11 terrorists were sending us an unintended message: concentrating the military command in the Pentagon, or financial and governmental organizations in the World Trade Centre towers, makes them – and all of us commuting to workplaces like this every day – more vulnerable,” he says.

“We [need to] rethink our cities and our buildings so that instead of trying to fortify our architectural bullseyes, we eliminate them with a denser weave of diverse activities across a metropolitan area.”

To underpin that idea, Fisher compares the Western urban landscape with that of the Arab bazaar or ‘souk’. Comprising a network of small shops along covered streets, without any centre or clear boundaries, means souks have multiple ways in and out.

While souks might seem more vulnerable to attack, he says, since “…they are also highly resilient – not just economically because of their diversity of small businesses, but also militarily because of their distributed nature.”

“Souks may seem far removed from modern life, just as office buildings seem to epitomize it,” writes Fisher, but with the rise of a sharing, collaborative or on-demand economy, we have “already created a kind of digital version of the souk, with service platforms providing people access to experiences as diverse as those encountered by the customers in Arab markets,” he says.

Columnist Renee Loth writing in the Boston Globe went one step further, pointing out that if bad urban design creates the spread of social problems (like terrorism), then good urban design can go some way in helping to fix them.

“Even the best city plan is a weak bulwark against generations of alienation and despair. But if urban design can foster lawlessness and resentment, the opposite is also true,” she said.


Washington-based architect, urbanist, author and historian Adnan Morshed is even more blunt. He has said that proper urban planning can significantly reduce terrorist threats by building structures “that diffuse or mitigate social inequity, alienation, and eliminate the breeding ground of radical ideologies”.

In a critique of Paris and its high-rise banlieues, Morshed found that cities have become the prime targets of terrorist attacks because those found in high-density areas have every opportunity to plan and plot to do us harm.

The continuing experience of the French shows that multi-storey residential structures have become a breeding ground for social exclusion and can become a slippery slope towards extremism, while Brussels and its densely-populated Molenbeek neighbourhood has earned the unenviable reputation of producing more foreign fighters for ISIS than anywhere else in Europe.

Analogies can be found in the crime-ridden urban housing projects of the US and of course in our own, now much-derided inner-city housing commission towers in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Urbanist William H. Whyte’s 1960’s study of human behaviour in New York City found that strangers can be forced into having a sense of community simply using well-designed public spaces, and even the most mundane of details — like the orientation of doorways, the location of public benches and even the width of sidewalks — can and does affect human behaviour.

Given recent events across Europe as well as here in Australia, Whyte’s insights may prove to be even more crucial, or as Thomas Fisher writes, “We need to think souks, not office buildings.”

In the end, as with most complex problems, the solutions will need to be both multifaceted and varied, however what remains true is that good design, as with bad design, has a role to play in influencing the course of contemporary events.