21st-century urban planning

Designers gather at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design to explore ways to create public spaces protected against terrorism.

DESTURBS 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Darryl Egnal)
(photo credit: Courtesy/Darryl Egnal)
Sitting in a small conference room at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design watching a slide show with a group of academics and policymakers who gathered last Thursday afternoon, all I could think about was SimCity. That kitschy, 1990s-era computer game where players were tasked with building a city from scratch. You’d be given the building materials and money to construct skyscrapers, factories, apartments and homes by a lake or river or the location of your choosing. And then, you’d hold your breath and wait for the game to unleash catastrophe – tornadoes, fires, shipwrecks and attacks by monsters. The idea was if you had designed your city well, placed the roads, police stations and the nuclear power plants in the right locations, you’d end up surviving.
But if you lacked a robust strategy, you’d bankrupt the town or watch it go up in flames.
Protecting modern-day Jerusalem, while not as simplistic as a video game, also means anticipating apocalyptic disasters, namely terrorist attacks, and the professors and students who gathered for DESTURBS, an acronym for Designing Safer Urban Spaces, were dreaming up recipes for terror-proof design.
DESTURBS is a multinational research project funded by European Union, which aims to make urban spaces less vulnerable and more resilient to terrorist attacks, crime and natural disasters. A consortium of eight universities in England, Greece, Spain and Israel, including Bezalel and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have received 4.6 million euros to develop a myriad of new products and technologies that will help local governments better prepare and respond to terror attacks.
Bezalel professor Mike Turner says this is not about designing more fortified roofs or stronger concrete blocks. Instead, his team is focusing on what’s known as “liminal space.”
“Most attacks or problems take place in spaces ‘inbetween,’ what we call liminal space, where people are waiting outside something.”
Many of the ideas that have sprung up on the Israeli end of the project go well beyond metal detectors and DIY gates, so often the protective devices of choice for high-profile targets.
Instead, the Israeli researchers are analyzing not just the buildings in Jerusalem’s city center, but the flow of space and human traffic.
For example, Hebrew University professor Noam Shoval is interested in the way city-dwellers may feel at any particular moment. He’s developing a smart-phone application called “Sensometer” to track people’s sense of safety, allowing them to write in to a central database with a number indicating their perceived security-level (based on a scale of 1 to 5), or a free-style comment. Shoval aggregates the data and comes up with averages that determine the relative level of fear in a particular public space.
The application has been pilot-tested by the Jerusalem Police and the Nottingham Police in the United Kingdom, both of which gave the phone apps to students for one week. Shoval said he is still analyzing the data to assess the outcomes of the projects but envisions that the app will someday be used regularly by police to help them figure out where to focus police resources.
For many of the researchers involved, the Internet is an alternative escape route, a virtual defense against terror. Bezalel graduate student Meidad Marzan likens it to the ancient practice of grabbing the a corner of an altar to avoid harm. He and his partner, Ilan Benaym, propose creating modern-day altars, cone-shaped vessels that would be placed across the city and give people WiFi access in case of emergency.
Marzan says it’s well-known that in the event of a terror attack cellular networks are often overloaded and unavailable to the general public. His network would be connected to underground broadband networks to which cell phones could connect to receive important updates – such as directions to the nearest escape route or shelters – if the cellular network fails.
But DESTURBS is much more than data-crunching and iPhones. There are a number of aesthetic and philosophical questions that concern the consortium’s members, who are tasked with developing the European Union’s guidelines for safe urban design.
Often security apparatuses in the public domain have a Big Brother feel. The specter of an Orwellian government spying looms large over these thinkers’ minds, even in a place like Israel, where security checkpoints at shopping malls and bus stations are the norm.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, who is responsible for city planning, environmental conservation and sustainability, said that “the public domain is what a city is about,” but added, “Defining the public domain has many more layers to it than the kind of benches there are and where we plant trees. The design you come up with may make people feel all the difference.”
The designers face an uphill battle: How does one design spaces that are protective without stripping them of their ambiance? Large concrete barricades, a constant barrage of security checkpoints and obtrusive cameras can make people feel isolated and inhibited.
As Bezalel professor Yona Weitz, a field anthropologist, noted, a month ago, for the first time, the Jerusalem Municipality installed cameras in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, evoking the suspicion of shopkeepers despite officials touting the benefits of the increased security. Weitz, along with her students, conducted a public opinion survey and found there to be “a big gap between what officials and urban users felt,” she said. “Store owners felt uncomfortable because of the culture of official mistrust.”
Participants pointed to the Jerusalem Light Rail, which opened this past summer as an example of resilient design. Another resilient innovation heralded at the conference was Bezalel student Arthur Brutter’s “earthquake-proof table.” Brutter, along with his professor, Ido Bruno, came up with the table, which can withstand 1,000 kilograms of falling debris.
The idea is that in an emergency, students can crawl beneath the table and be protected. Some schools in Sderot are using the tables in classrooms as a measure to protect pupils against Kassam rocket attacks. This “super table” is made of material that better absorbs the energy from a blast, what is known as energy dissipation. In a similar vein, Jerusalem buses and the Light Rail are outfitted with special tempered-glass windows that do the same.
Others pointed to the redesign of city garbage cans in recent years, from the old large, open bins, to the newer, steel-enforced bins that can protect against an explosion.
Yet graduate student Tova Safra believes that redesigning objects alone is not enough; rather, entire spaces need to be reconceived. Safra studied eight sites in Israel where 31 terror attacks had taken place. She and her colleagues noticed that sites hit by multiple attacks shared many features.
The most common of these are a high degree of symbolic value, and “short sightlines” – a term urban designers use to describe areas in which the short field of view is limited. In addition, the attacks tend to occur at peak traffic hours.
Safra argues that a suburban supermarket, for example, is not an attractive target for terrorists, who would more likely choose a highly crowded place, surrounded by many alleyways and small streets that make for a quick getaway, such as Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, the site of 10 terror attacks over the past 80 years.
Safra argues that terror attacks are not random, but occur in public spaces that “invite” would-be terrorists.
“There’s a pattern – there are places that are specifically appealing,” she says. “The terrorists are getting smarter but the space itself hasn’t gotten smarter.”
How to address these “bottleneck zones” – small spaces with a lot of pedestrian traffic – has been a difficult conundrum, says Ofer Yitzhak, the Israel National Police department’s chief licensing officer.
Over the past few years police have begun to change their strategy – moving from securing buildings and objects to full-fledged space protection. The new approach is to create entire secure zones.
An example of this new approach is how police secure the Dead Sea area, a tourist-heavy location with lots of visitors but beleaguered by crime. The police have installed a number of security checkpoints along the highway and are working actively with local authorities and hotels in the district.
Danny Felsenstein, an associate professor of geography at the Hebrew University, is trying to work through the problem of bottlenecks on a macrolevel.
Felsenstein collects data about behavior that occurs during terror attacks and then runs simulations.
“If there is a guy who burns himself up, who takes charge? Who directs ambulances? Who clears parked cars?” he asks. These are just some of the questions he hopes to answer. The professor believes his program can arm city officials with the knowledge of how and where to respond effectively.
“The idea is to shorten the chaos period and quicken the equilibrium time,” Felsenstein says.
There’s an old joke someone at the conference recalled: “Israel is a resilient place because the distance to the hospital is short.”
Zeev Druckman, head of the Bezalel Graduate Program in Urban Design, said, “There is a medieval saying: The city makes people free.”
But the task of architects and designers had changed, he added.
“We used to design places of gathering, and now we have to design places of evacuation; it’s a different story. It’s quite a tough question how to do this with a positive notion.”
On January 31 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Bezalel Academy of Art and Design invites members of the public to attend “Jerusalem and Moscow: East meets West,” a joint seminar (in English) with the Moscow Architectural Institute (Academy of Architecture) MARKHI, looking at the cross-cultural influences of Jerusalem and thoughts for the future.