Rings of Steel: How 9/11 Changed the way Cities are Planned

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security”, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.

The Skyline of New York City

The ‘War on Terror’
The attack on September 11, 2001, created an atmosphere of shock. A mysterious and incalculable danger crept onto the international stage prompting the United States to call up all nation-states to join its proclaimed ‘War on Terror’. A change to national policies, budgets, and capacities around the world to assist the terrorist threat, carried a notion that no one was safe anymore. The jolt 9/11 spurred provided a gap in the system – a gap to be filled with new patterns of governance and monitoring, not just overseas, but on the home front as well. Terrorism, although attacked by external forces transformed into a concern for internal security – the enemy from within needed to be identified and eradicated. Counterterrorism measures were instituted through policies, domestic task forces, and surveillance mechanisms – these are not new to the world, but the ‘War on Terror’ created conditions for states to speed up the already preconceived plans for controlling their populations.

Urban Landscape and Terrorism
The act of terrorism is location-specific – the tactic is used on objects of symbolic importance, on places where whatever message is sent, it will be realised and seen. The city, the urban lifestyle becomes an ideal target for terrorist attacks. Statistics reveal that between 1993 and 2000, 94% of injuries and 61% of deaths from terrorist attacks took place in cities. The activities critical to an individual’s welfare situates primarily in the city – businesses, healthcare, leisure activities and government operations. The cityscape also symbolises the pride and power of a nation and it becomes most vulnerable to attack because of its dependency with the lives of a population.

Terrorism changed the mentality of shaping the urban landscape – it was no longer a question of if an attack would be possible in a city, but a question of when and how a city would be targeted through terrorist tactics. If the attacks have become inevitable to the state, the risk of the attack can only be managed and eradicated – this has been able to change security measures, and urban planning has been a critical part of the plan to ‘reduce’ insecurity. Counterterrorism actions are constructed under the guise of ensuring maximum security of life – these actions can be aesthetic in order for defensive measures to become more acceptable to the population, or they can be highly visible in order to manipulate awareness of the threat of terrorism. Changes in urban landscapes have been prominently altered in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Cityscape of the United States
Counterterrorism measures in the urban landscape can be observed vividly in the country where the very attacks took place. An example of an overt security measure is the designs of embassies, created with layers of security to look more like imposing fortresses. Simplicity and anonymity is the new trend for diplomatic buildings to make them seem impermeable, less iconic and at less risk of attack. However, stealth and invisible features are the most common development in the US. There is an increase of citadel creation in the US as whole. A citadel is a mainly private infrastructure, traditionally used by businesses, which incorporates the workplace with facilities necessary for daily life – an employee no longer needs to leave the office in order to shop, eat and relax. Most citadels are now constructed to have underground entrances to maximise security.

The "Ugly but safe" U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Notice the line of bollard on the side-walk in front of the embassy.

The “Ugly but safe” U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Notice the line of bollard on the side-walk in front of the embassy.

Action has been taken outdoors as well in terms of transportation – methods for delivering weapons or vehicles even being used as aids for mass destruction have become a concern. The Department of Transportation created the Transportation Security Administration and the Transportation Security Task Force after the attacks on September 11, with an aim to safeguard the nation’s highway system. Roads are the most difficult to secure from terrorist attacks as they connect all modes of transport and there are over 590,000 bridges and over 3.9 million miles of public roads in the US. Highway security is addressed on federal, state and local levels and, as infrastructure is assessed, security plans and emergency response plans are being developed, reconstruction has occurred to secure mobility assets and improve traffic flow, and to respond to military mobilisation needs. But a wave of ‘invisible’ changes to the city has also been noted – collapsible pedestrian pavements are installed outside the New York Mercantile Exchange, west of Ground Zero. Also called ‘Tiger Traps’, these pavements crumble under the weight of a vehicle and trap suspects in a pit away from target sites.

The Cityscape of the United Kingdom
In the UK, the cityscape security has transformed since the times of the Irish Republican Army attacks on the state. However, September 11 increased the need for more stealth measures to be put in place. In London, ‘rings of steel’ were implemented as a means to secure the central financial zones. The entrances to the city were reduced, ‘rings of plastic’ were set up to funnel traffic through the city, and ‘rings of concrete’ were set up to fortify landmark buildings such as the Houses of Parliament (which were later painted black to make them more pleasing to the public). These planning techniques have securitised different zones in London according to their risk factors. In North London, counterterrorism measures are displayed as aesthetic ornaments. Outside the Emirates Stadium, large concrete letters spelling out ‘Arsenal’ have been constructed and placed to prevent vehicle access and in turn have become a popular site for fans and tourists to photograph each other.


There is an increasing move towards the securitisation and militarisation of space and life. Security services are becoming important stakeholders in the planning of cities. Urban design is militarised in the sense that it is plain, with increased fortification features – purposely overt and visible to manipulate the fear of the population. An increase in visible security measures can however, evoke feelings of fear and anxiety as it exposes the vulnerability of those living in the city, thinking that an individual’s safety is threatened.

Counterterrorism measures in terms of urban planning ultimately places large costs on public expenditure and diversion of capital. Through the creation of new government agencies aimed at infrastructure, transport and security changes, the population is paying for a new bureaucracy at the state level. Expenditure on infrastructure transformation diverts capital from programmes and agencies which affect populations on an intimate and wider scale, such as cutting housing subsidies, curtailing of social service programmes and neglect of public education funds.

The measures of changing urban landscapes have amounted in a large scale – but this is not so surprising. States wish to control their populations, and through monitoring, mobilising, assessing, and predicting all aspects of an individual’s life, security can be measured and implemented. Using risk and fear is a powerful tool, but it can be dangerous. Counterterrorist measures can racially profile or categorise populations into discriminatory groups – such as using stealth features to create urban zones and cultural divisions. Landscape reconstruction can also restrict freedom of movement in and out of cities, resulting in a loss of public space. Citizens may feel isolated, repressed, or have feelings of being watched. Not only does this create areas for possible public dissent, but it also creates suspicion, and questions if the terrorist threat is really being prevented by these methods at all.

This entry was posted in English, Sandra Ivanov, Terrorism.

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