How Should We Build And Design Cities To Make It Tougher For Terrorists To Hurt People?

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 5:53 pm
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This week's terror attack in Manhattan prompts a question. Can a city do anything to stop a truck attack? Or to sharpen that question, how should we build and design cities to make it tougher for terrorists to hurt people? Tom Vonier's job is thinking along these lines. He's an architect, president of the American Institute of Architects. And Tom Vonier is here in our studio now. Thank you so much for coming in.

TOM VONIER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So from an architect's standpoint, from an urban design standpoint, are there specific things that should be put in place, that cities should be thinking about as we watch these terror attacks using trucks, using vehicles spread?

VONIER: It's challenging, but I think a systematic assessment of places where people congregate in numbers is possible. And we can do something. Ironically, congestion is our friend because speed of a vehicle is our enemy. It's physics. Acceleration times mass equals force. And so if you can slow a vehicle and keep its speed from building, you've diminished its ability to do damage. I've been working with store owners in Europe who have suffered a plague of rammings by vehicles from people who want to steal things.

And stopping a large truck is a formidable undertaking, but it's possible to do it. I think that's the game we're in now, looking at places where people are vulnerable and congregated in numbers that make them attractive as targets and looking at what can be done to separate vehicles from people and to slow the speed of surrounding vehicles and to prevent them from approaching those areas.

KELLY: And when you say speed is our enemy, what kind of things are urban planners thinking about in terms of, OK, it's - a truck attack is bad, but it would be a whole lot better going 5 miles an hour than 50 miles an hour?

VONIER: A couple of things. If you're starting with a clean slate, looking at curved roadways, roadways that have chicanes in them that prevent vehicles from going in a straight line.

KELLY: Curving streets.

VONIER: That's right.

KELLY: Yeah.

VONIER: A technique that's used to secure sites, let's say, around U.S. consulates and embassies. It's just a question of how one approaches urban streets. And if your idea is to make traffic move faster, you're really kind of working against the interest we're talking about, which is the security of people who are nearby.

KELLY: What about more radical solutions? Are there cities talking about banning traffic completely from the urban centers that are crowded?

VONIER: Well, I mean, look at Rome and parts of Paris, parts of other European cities that are high on the tourist map. They've restricted traffic in those areas for years not for this reason but because it makes it a more amenable place to be. So I think I wouldn't characterize those as radical solutions. I think they're sensible steps that should be studied and examined and considered and implemented if it makes sense.

KELLY: How do you think about striking a balance between preserving the feel of an open society, the principles of a big city and a big democracy, versus trying to protect citizens who live there?

VONIER: I think that's very important. And I think people should be granted access to as many places as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean they should be allowed to drive there. I know that's a tough swallow for some people, but I do think restricting automobiles and motor vehicles generally is a positive thing for cities.

Take the example of Stockholm, which had a terrible attack during the Christmas season. They've put very large permanent granite lions - I think there are 18 or 19 of them now - as both a commemoration of what happened but as a measure that prevents large vehicles from entering certain areas of the city. So I don't think it's radical. I think it's more of a sensible response to something that is going to be part of the landscape for some time to come.

KELLY: Tom Vonier - he is president of the American Institute of Architects. Thanks so much for coming in.

VONIER: Thank you, Mary Louise, a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.