“Reappraising the Fortress City: Risk, Security, and Military Urbanism”

Two British police officers on special duties  at Paddington Station west London, 2 July 2007. EPA/ANDY RAIN

Two British police officers on special duties at Paddington Station west London, 2 July 2007. EPA/ANDY RAIN

Jon Coaffe, Ph.D.-University of Warwick, UK
2014 Urban Studies Convocation Speech

After listening to Jon Coaffe’s convocation speech on October 16, 2014, I developed this summary and analysis of his presentation. Coffee’s research was inter-disciplinary involving different fields of knowledge including urban studies, architecture, geography, and political science. The research presented by professor Coaffe concerns policy responses to terrorism in urban areas. Mr. Coaffe uses London as a case study to explore the historical background of urban terrorism and governmental counter-terrorism programs. An inherent struggle exists in policy responses to urban terrorism because there is a fine line between proper policy and over-reaction. Terrorist attacks represent great opportunities for governments to implement new technologies and methodologies to improve security in urban areas. This can be accomplished by passing new legislation to increase surveillance and militarize the police force.

Coaffe focused much of his convocation speech on counter-terrorism policies in London during the 1990’s. Government policies directed to “design out terrorism” were broached from nearby efforts by the Irish government to quell car bombs in Belfast. This included the introduction of the “ring of steel” involving heavily secured steel entrances into the main city center. Car bombs became an epidemic in Belfast, meanwhile targeted terrorist attacks overwhelmed Central London. Terrorist attacks increased in London during the 1990’s and efforts to defend the city brought controversial new defense policies.

Major policy reforms came as a response to three major terrorist attacks in London. The first attack happened on April of 1992 when a bomb exploded in front of the St. Mary’s Axe building. The explosion caused great damage to the surrounding buildings and led to a substantial economic loss. Surveillance increased in London as a result including the implementation of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) technologies. A second major terrorist attack pressured London to embrace their own “ring of steel” technology in what is colloquially called the “ring of plastic.” This new strategy used cones to reduce major entrances in London from thirty to eight. This made the city easier to monitor for safety purposes, but caused an uproar as it weakened London’s core transportation network. The City also adopted Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology at the entrances of the “ring of plastic” to monitor the flow of automobiles in the City.

Arguments were rife in opposition to new counter-terrorism programs because many felt the new safety measures overrode civil-liberties. The city of London discussed the counter-terrorism efforts as an effort to expand and traffic the “environmental zone.” This censored language was employed in order to avoid increasing fears of terrorist attacks in the media and the public realm.  The new surveillance technologies implemented in response to the terrorist attacks proliferated throughout London. Soon London would hace the most cameras of any city in the world. These new safety measures deterred crime inside London’s urban core, but displaced terrorist attacks to its periphery. Despite prevention efforts such as the “iron collar” in the London Docklands the IRA finally succeeded in exploding a bomb in the Quay building in 1996. The local government responded with ANPR, CCTV, and armed guards.

This militarization of space came to the forefront of urban discourse. New theories were born such as “splintered urbanism” and “rings of confidence.” These debates were eventually quieted as the new methodology of counter-terrorism proved fairly successful in prevention. This was short-lived as the terrorist attacks on September 11th in the United States had a global impact in counter-terrorism policy. This devastating loss sparked new fears regarding the scale of potential terrorist threats. Heavy security and militarization measures in London provided extra security to U.S. businesses. Mainstream urban fears came in response to 9/11 including the potential demise of skyscrapers and a new “architecture of terror.”

Washington, D.C. adopted a strategy aimed at “soften[ing] the appearance of the security features, while at the same time hardening security.” London followed suit by utilizing the natural environment for security purposes. This included utilizing trees instead of cement barriers and also using bodies of water instead of concrete walls. These themes are at the core of Jon Coaffe’s research involving military urbanism and its role in fighting urban terrorism.

Urban terrorism has become a global phenomenon causing an epidemic of widespread paranoia. But the popular fears of terrorism are often misplaced. Most cities are more vulnerable to environmental and technological disasters rather than terrorist attacks. The development of new urban areas and the retro-fitting of existing cities is inherently bound to the concept of military urbanism. Jon Coaffe offered a fascinating survey of the historical development of urban terrorism and the subsequent policy responses. Cities are growing and maturing into the loci of political, economic, and social activity within the state, but the core functions of urban living at risk to urban terrorism.

The state is able to exercise infrastructural power throughout the city in the organization and control of transportation networks. The state also exerts social control over the public through the widespread implementation of CCTV and ANPR technologies. The use of armed guards and tanks in London further speaks to the progression towards the militarization of the state. Crime is often deterred from these heavily protected areas, but the effect is short lived as crime is displaced to the outskirts of the city. This creates a demand for increased surveillance in areas surrounding city. This domino effect has the potential to spread the implementation of security efforts throughout the entire state. This would lead to the complete militarization of the state and cause concerns about total social control.

It is intriguing to apply this approach in studying urban areas in the United States. The militarization of the American state is hidden by many facades. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 resulted in highways connecting major cities and military bases throughout the country. This serves as convenience for civilian transportation, but it was also a direct military action. The interstate highway system facilitates the transportation of American troops and nuclear weapons throughout the interior of the country. Another aspect of state militarization is the minimum vertical clearances along interstate highways to allow for the mobilization of nuclear missiles. The United States’ government has been able to militarize the land throughout history, but it becomes more difficult to do so in urban areas.

I found Jon Coaffe’s convocation speech very interesting. I hope this serves as a good summary of his talk and cultivates new ideas to expand on the concepts of urban terrorism, the “architecture of terror”, and the increased militarization of the state.

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