Defensible spaces

Architecture: Designs can create a sense of security, if terrorism becomes a permanent feature of life.

October 25, 2001

WITHIN HOURS of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, concrete jersey barriers arose in front of Baltimore's police headquarters and other key buildings, including the main train station.

Cities around the nation took similar emergency measures. But if terrorism becomes a permanent feature of U.S. life, more fundamental changes may be on the horizon in construction methods as well as in architectural design. In brief, the goal will be to build defensible spaces.

Oscar Newman, who coined the phrase more than 20 years ago, applied the principle to crime-ridden public housing complexes. He figured they could be made safer by removing alcoves and hiding places and providing better visibility so that residents could watch for mischief-makers.

His principles have since been implemented in residential neighborhoods around the nation.

After 1995, when 187 people lost their lives in the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, talk about defensible spaces was extended to office buildings as well. In prophetic 1998 congressional testimony, Ronald J. Massa warned that "a relatively small bomb can make tons of building materials a part of the weapon." Dr. Massa, who had a worldwide consulting business on anti-terrorism, urged reforms in construction.

The attack on the World Trade Center, its collapse and the deaths of more than 5,000 people raise a web of complicated new questions. What is the future of the tallest skyscrapers, if tenants do not feel secure in them? Are signature buildings in general likely to be targets? Will safety concerns change preferences for the types of houses people want to buy?

Recent housing-related conferences in Boston and New York, whatever the intended topics, gravitated toward these questions. There was no consensus, other than a suggestion that major corporations are likely to decentralize more of their operations.

Some Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian and European countries have dealt with terrorism and kidnappings for years. Surveillance cameras, buffer zones, barricaded checkpoints and bodyguards for executives have become facts of life there.

More of these precautions now seem likely in this nation's future.

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