Resilient design for community safety and terror-resistant cities

J. Coaffee PhD, C. Moore PhD, D. Fletcher PhD and L. Bosher PhD, FRGS, MICDDS

Resilience against an array of traditional and unconventional terrorist threats is increasingly important to the way towns and\ cities are designed and managed and how built environment professionals attempt to enhance levels of community safety. This is particularly the case with regard to crowded public places and transport systems such as light rail or trams, which are seen as particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack. This paper argues that contemporary terrorist threats and tactics mean that counter-terrorism in urban areas should increasingly seek to hybridise hard and soft engineering solutions in order to design and manage the built environment in ways that can reduce the occurrence or impact of a terrorist attack. In particular, it is argued that for counter-terrorism to be successful, inter-professional solutions are required for a wide range of public, private and community stakeholders that are (or should be) involved with the planning, design, construction, operation and management of public places. 


Successful places are safe, well maintained and well managed. Achieving this depends on managing the physical asset effectively and appropriately. With the right structures, people who live and use the place will be able to influence what happens there.1

Community safety is a broad issue that has become central to recent UK Government attempts to create sustainable communities and secure public places. For example, Safer Places: The Planning System and Crime Prevention argued that ‘safety and security are essential to successful, sustainable communities’.2 Not only are such places well-designed, attractive environments in which to live and work, they are also places where freedom from crime—and from the fear of crime—improves the quality of life. This guide identified seven ‘attributes of sustainability’ that should be considered as ‘prompts’ to thinking about promoting community safety.2 These attributes, summarised in Table 1, draw significantly on the ideas of ‘crime prevention through environmental design’ and ‘defensible space’, which have been utilised by built environment professionals and law enforcement agencies since the 1970s.

Increasingly, these are also attributes that are entering current discourse on countering terrorism in urban areas, although such attempts to reduce terrorist risk are by no means unprecedented. 

During the 1990s, the experience of UK authorities in attempting to ‘design out’ terrorism was largely confined to efforts to stop car bombing (or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices
( VBIEDs)) by the Provisional Irish Republican Army ( PIRA) against the economic infrastructure in London. More recently, concerns about the likelihood and impact of terrorist attack on crowded public places using a variety of novel and experimental deployment methods (e.g. the failed attacks in central London and a partially successful VBIED at Glasgow airport in 2007) has heightened the sense of fear in many urban locations as future attacks against ‘soft targets’ appear more likely. Such forms of terrorist attack also have echoes of a spate of PIRA bombings in the mid-1970s against soft targets such as pubs and restaurants.

In short, over the last five years, the threat of terrorism has evolved rapidly; new approaches to countering terrorism are needed in response. Terrorism is understood here to mean one of many operational methods deployed either singularly or as part of a campaign so as to affect one or more targets, thereby affecting political, social and economic life.3

Crowded public places (e.g. shopping areas, transport systems, sports and conference arenas) in particular are at high risk. Furthermore, they cannot be subject to traditional security approaches such as searches and checkpoints without radically changing public experience. The creation of an environment that is inherently more resilient and less likely to suffer attack through ‘designing in’ counter-terrorism to physical and managerial urban systems, offers hope of improving security in an acceptable as well as effective way.

Within this context, this paper sets out the challenges for municipal engineers, built environment professionals and security agencies to increase the terror resistance of our cities through physical intervention and managerial measures—the hardware and software of ‘resilient planning’.4 The approaches described form the basis of ongoing research by the authors (Fig. 1).


Before the events of 9/11, threats of terrorism predominantly came from VBIEDs targeting major financial or political centres. In response, attempts to counter terrorism often utilised planning regulations and advanced technology to create ‘security zones’ or ‘rings of steel’ where access was restricted and surveillance significantly enhanced.5 9/11 made such counter- terrorist tactics appear inadequate, and security policy began to 

shift to proactive and pre-emptive solutions based on ideas of resilience—defined here as ‘the ability to detect, prevent and if necessary handle disruptive challenges.This includes but is not limited to disruptive challenges arising from the possibility of a terrorist attack’.6 This has forced a rethinking of traditional emergency planning and counter-terrorist tactics given the increased magnitude of the threats faced—especially those from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) sources which many terrorist groups have expressed significant interest in utilising in attacks, and which, in the words of the UK prime minister, could hit ‘anywhere and from any place’.7 Equally, however, the threat posed by person-borne explosive devices in crowded public places (e.g. the Bali pub bombings in 2002 and the Madrid train attacks in 2004) is setting new challenges for professionals involved in providing security in crowded places, especially in light of the suicide attacks on the London transport network in July 2005 and the London and Glasgow attacks in July 2007.

Although debates on the relationship between new and traditional threats continue, the methods and tactics adopted by terror groups are novel, innovative and increasingly focused on mass casualty strikes or multiple coordinated attacks. Such attacks, often conducted by suicide attackers and tactically aimed at ‘soft’ targets and more generally crowded places, have led to considerable ongoing and multi-disciplinary research.8 Crowded areas have features in common (such as their lack of access control), but may be bounded (e.g. a stadium or train) or unbounded (e.g. a shopping area). Some policy-related work has helped to understand the changing nature of the threat in relation to evolving groups such as Al Qaeda.9 Nevertheless, much of the academic work post-9/11 fails to offer the truly multi- disciplinary and inter-professional approach needed to develop strategies to maintain community safety by deterring terrorism in public places while ensuring public acceptability of the security measures. While iconic buildings and specific hubs such as airports have long been identified as targets for terror attacks, a more general reading of public places is also required if resilience is to be enhanced. For example, public places such as shopping centres, pubs, clubs and markets may be especially crowded at specific times of the day or year. Depending on their social and cultural function, public places may be fixed, but they may also be cordoned-off due to events and subject to impromptu queuing and crowding. Although public places such as shopping malls or train stations serve a community, they may be simultaneously linked to the private sector, and accordingly, they could be crowded at peak shopping or travel times. Together, this blend of changing terror methods and targets, especially those directed at crowded places in urban centres, provides a challenge for security professionals and practitioners.

National policy makers and the security services now perceive attacks against crowded public places as one of their key priorities in the ongoing fight against terrorism.  

Cont. reading...