Anti Terrorism bollards
Anti Terrorism bollards in Melbourne's Bourke Street. Photo: Alpha on Flickr

CONTRIBUTOR: The recent terrorist attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 peaceful worshipers and wounded at least 50 more, is only the latest in violent attacks plaguing many democracies around the world. The attacks in Christchurch, and more recently Sri Lanka, are examples of how terrorists have significantly changed their modus operandi in the new millennium; a shift to the targeting of people in densely populated urban centres has now become the inescapable norm. 

These so-called “black swan” shock events – very low probability but high-impact events – are designed to generate fear, cause mayhem, inflict harm, and ultimately seek to destroy the social cohesion at the heart of open, liberal democracies. These events have captured the attention of citizens, policy makers, security experts, governments, and the like. In our post-9/11 world, “what if” scenarios, relating to the likelihood of a terrorist attacked, have been replaced by “when, then” scenarios. 

Urban planning and built environment professionals are increasingly being charged with balancing public interests and complex security considerations in formulating creative responses to catastrophic events

As 21st century attacks in cities such as Melbourne, Nice, Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester and Berlin (to name a few) in established, urban public spaces are now of overt concern. As a result, a complex and evolving landscape has emerged for practitioners, policy makers and legislators that transcends the domain of traditional security services. 

Along with the usual actors of the securitisation process –  security professionals, politicians, bureaucrats, police, and military personnel – urban planning and built environment professionals are now increasingly being charged with balancing public interests and complex security considerations in formulating creative responses to these catastrophic events. 

Security risks exhibit features of “wicked problems” as they involve interrelated issues, lack definitive formulation and are subject to different interpretations based on values and rationalities. As governments and institutions confront the complexity of security threats in globally connected cities, they have increasingly employed “urban resilience”  a complex solution to a complex set of problems –  as a more holistic, umbrella policy response. 

Urban resilience refers to the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they may experience. In the main, resilience is the aptitude of persistence; the ability to adapt, evolve, adjust, minimise vulnerabilities and bounce back from acute shock events. 

Cities the world over, including here in Australia, have traditionally employed urban resilience as a response to climate change and the increasingly severe weather events and natural disasters which threaten our growing urban environments. More recently, however, urban resilience is assuming a new guise as it becomes coupled with national security initiatives by governments across the globe. 

Australian governments and agencies engaged with homeland security, emergency management and counter-terrorism have increasingly moved to implement resilience concepts in public policy more broadly. For example, the Australian Government in 2017 released guidance about the protection of crowded places from terrorism.

In the same year, the Victorian Government launched a $50 million CBD security upgrade project which includes the installation of physical protections at nine locations, additional CCTV cameras and a new public address system. Furthermore, recent observations in Australia indicate that built environment professionals are actively engaging with design training and skills development in the areas of security and resilience. 

Not a lot of certainty

Yet, for all its touted promise, the rapid implementation of resilience theory has come with uncertainty as to how different practices and approaches should come together to operationalise the concept. Some have argued that resilience, used as a politicised buzz-word, can justify any activity, “which limits its usefulness as a guiding concept”. 

In a more practical sense, UK-based research has highlighted the difficulty to accurately cost for designed-in security and the issues surrounding security aesthetics such as temporary concrete or steel blocks and the militarisation of public spaces, which can impact freedom of movement, livability, and civil liberties. 

It is clear we need further research and critical analysis, specifically,  how resilience objectives are operationalised.

Although urban resilience policy making appears here to stay, it is still very much a contested topic. In delivering on resilience, security solutions should be, and must be seen to be, proactive and proportional to the ongoing threat of terrorism. 

Solutions should be embedded within increasingly collaborative design and management systems so that they strike a balance between reducing risk and fallout while minimising the negative impact upon the civic liberties in contemporary Australian cities. Whether urban resilience ought to be, or even can be, a major strategy in Australian metropolitan policy is largely to be determined, providing scope for further critical investigation. 

Lukas Davis is a practising planning consultant and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include planning, resilience studies, adaptive capacity, metropolitan governance, public policy, and security studies.

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