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Consumer Reports

Urban streets getting security-conscious makeovers | (KRT) In addition to taking your change, some parking meters are being redesigned to take hits from trucks.

The meters - along with fortified drinking fountains, trash cans, benches, bus shelters, newsstands, planters, traffic lights and street lights - are intended to replace concrete barricades used to protect many public buildings since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The new "hardened street furniture" looks like conventional urban fixtures, but is reinforced with internal bars of hardened steel buried deep in cement. Proponents say that by camouflaging the security function, the new designs will help restore public confidence shaken by terrorist attacks. They also would restore at least some of the traditional beauty around such landmarks as the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

These and other federal buildings along Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue are to be protected by such fixtures by Inauguration Day in 2005. Planners in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco are thinking in the same vein, so many state capitals, city halls and courthouses are likely to be ringed by hardened furniture in the future.

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"People going to architecture and urban design schools 10 years ago never thought about these issues," said Richard Friedman, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission task force, which came up with Washington's basic designs. Today, designing with terrorism in mind "is just like adjusting to handicap and sprinkler codes," he added. "This is part of retrofitting our cities, and we've got to get it done."

The general approach, he said, is to strengthen ordinary objects to an extraordinary degree so that people feel reasonably secure without the fixtures appearing fearsome.

Concrete barriers provoke fear and look more formidable, Friedman noted. And if they're unanchored, they can become "projectile missiles" when hit by a vehicle.

Truck-stopping drinking fountains won't protect against, say, suicide bombers, but about 80 percent of terrorist activity worldwide involves explosives carried by vehicles, Friedman said. The Pennsylvania Avenue designs are to be crash-tested in a classified project overseen by the U.S. Secret Service.

Having a variety of hardened street furniture is essential because barriers must be quite close together - less than 4 feet - to stop oncoming vehicles. Even so, not all eyes see beauty in the new concept.

The landscape architects selected to design a new Pennsylvania Avenue promenade in front of the White House, for example, came up with elegantly curved granite benches and slimmed-down street posts, called bollards, for protection.

Friedman's street furniture "doesn't feel right" said Gullivar Shepard, a senior associate of the New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Landscape Architects. "In our opinion, in the same way that concrete planters full of shrubs with security guards lurking behind them would be unappealing to pedestrians, so would a very strange-looking bench that seems oversized and disproportionate."

Such street security fixtures work in some locations, Shepard continued, but not in important park-like settings such as the promenade in front of the White House.

"The whole premise of a hardened streetscape is making security not as visible," he said. "If we did it here, it would be all too obvious what was going on. We couldn't pull the wool over people's eyes in this case."

While Van Valkenburgh will harden some fixtures, the site's security will rely heavily on steel bollards to protect the perimeter of the promenade in front of the White House.

Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of Washington's National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a group of aesthetic traditionalists, said she's all for enhanced but hidden street protection.

"If it costs more to put steel in the parking meter to reinforce it, let's do it," Feldman said. "Let's not erect all kinds of walls and barriers that scream that we are cowardly."

Marcy Barclay of Pittsburgh, who'd just seen security planters near the White House, didn't mind that their function was obvious.

"I feel better seeing something rather than nothing," she said.

These days, security may be more important than aesthetics, said Ivonne Montero, a tourist from Miami.

"When it comes to security, nothing bothers me," she said. "Not after everything that's happened."


To view the National Capitol Planning Commission's hardened street furniture collection, go to, click on "Planning Initiatives," then click on "Security and Urban Design."

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© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services