How can we make terror-proof public spaces without cameras and armed forces all over?

byRenny Ramakers

published on 20/11/2015

In De Groene Amsterdammer of 19 November 2015, I came across an interesting observation by Dutch columnist Ewald Engelen. He makes a connection between the horror attacks in Paris and a deeply grounded hate for the city, or better urban life: “Pleasure, play, love, luck, art – those are human bothers that distract from what really matters: total surrender to a higher purpose. In the case of IS this has a transcendental origin. And therefore the city with all its temptations, its smells, its sounds and shimmers has to be severely transformed into a quiet, boring, strongly religious farming village”. The city as the focus of bourgeois infection contra the country as focus of purification and resurrection: Engelen also finds it at Mao’s cultural revolution and Pol Pot’s actions in Cambodia. Le Corbusier is also on his list, advocating a model for a view on city and world that considers transparency, predictability and control as the highest values.

He points out that the Paris acts of terror show us - “as if reflected in a demonic distorting mirror” - the tremendous importance of the open, free city and the non-conformist lifestyles that it allows to flourish. “Yes, it is chaotic, messy, anomic, dirty, promiscuous. But the same conditions that are responsible for this – diversity, proximity, anonymity, freedom – are the very enablers of pleasure, play, luck and love; the things that film, literature, theatre, art and city dwellers speak about in a lyrical way.”  

He refers to his colleague Simon Kuper who, in a column for The Financial Times, speaks about the vulnerability of urban life. “The whole point of Paris is to use the city. Everyone here lives in a cramped apartment. There are almost no back gardens where you can barbecue or play catch with the kids and shut yourself off from the world. You live in Paris to go out, to meet friends in cafés like the Bataclan, to have conversations with intelligent people from everywhere, to go to football matches or to the Louvre, near which there was a shooting tonight too. Paris is all about its public spaces — the cafés, the cultural venues and the squares. No city has better ones. And when those public spaces become dangerous — and the Parisian authorities have told people not to leave home unless “absolutely necessary” — the city crumbles”. But as Engelen rightly asks, do we want to live in a thoroughly militarised public space, which by definition promises us illusionary safety?

The Social City poll results show that social security is favoured over safety measures like CCTV, police and gated communities. One in five even say that they don’t need any control. Our poll also shows that most people prefer the square and the street as public space and do not want to stay at home to meet their friends. The question is: could we design public spaces that protect us against bombs and machine guns without armed forces and cameras all over? It is not a question. It is a task. Not only a task for urban planners, architects and designers but also for our technological forces.

 

Top image: Flickr/Jessie Romaneix Gosselin

 

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