Words by DEBIKA RAY
How can we secure our cities from the threat of terrorism without destroying what makes them liveable?
Terrorism is continually evolving. As cities and organizations adapt, terrorists innovate — finding new ways to confound and circumvent measures of detection and defence. In recent years, this innovation has taken an unexpected turn: as security systems have become more advanced, attacks have been simplified and ambitions degraded. Not long ago, a terrorist attack in a major city would typically involve highly trained groups from named organizations carrying out complex, large-scale operations designed to make maximum symbolic impact. Today, attacks are commonly low-tech and unpredictable — carried out by lone wolves using improvised weapons and targeted at seemingly random groups of people in crowded locations of no obvious significance.
These tactics may change again. Advances in scientific research — from drone technology and smart cities to synthetic viruses and new chemical agents — open up new avenues of vulnerability and methods of attack. But if the purpose of terrorism is to create fear and uncertainty, one of the most potent tactics today is to simply grab a knife or jump into a van and kill indiscriminately: a method that’s cheap, easy, low risk, high impact and practically unpreventable.
“It’s pretty much DIY terrorism,” says Matt Brittle, head of security, risk and resilience at WSP in the UK. “It’s effective — you can do it without raising your profile — and you don’t need much skill, which makes it hard to know when the next one will crop up.”
In reality, the risk of being caught up in a terrorist attack is minuscule. US government figures show that in 2016 there were 25,621 fatalities worldwide from terrorist attacks, down 13% from the previous year. Terrorism accounted for just 0.06% of deaths overall, according to the Global Health Data Exchange, just over half as many as were caused by exposure to heat or cold. Arguably, if we react to such remote threats by over-militarizing our cities, we are helping terrorists to meet one of their main objectives: to create a climate of fear. In this complex landscape, governments, city planners and designers must strike a tricky balance between security and freedom, between a city that’s safe and vigilant and one that’s liveable, efficient and spontaneous.