Defensive Urbanism: A Field Guide

On May 1st, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges, including murder, for six Baltimore police whose actions allegedly led to the death of Freddie Gray. A few days later, the National Guard had left the city and the curfew had been lifted. However, preliminary motions filed in the case have been combative, and protests continue. The struggle is playing on and through a landscape temporarily deformed by defensive infrastructure.

These tactical structures of exclusion have been under development for years, part of a creeping security state that bloomed in the aftermath of 9/11. Fragments of overseas misadventures -- war machines and veterans in our police forces -- have combined with a flood of federal dollars meant to insulate population centers against terrorism. The predicted Al Qaeda invasion never materialized, but the fortifications have risen ever higher. 

The first, and flimsiest, set of urban obstacles are temporary barriers meant to guide pedestrian and vehicular flows. The humble traffic cone is widely respected, visually striking, and sculpturally significant, but is easily weaponized. Crowd control barricades, familiar to anyone attending stadiums, are similarly vulnerable to redirection by angry crowds. The next level is vehicles themselves, parked  to wall off streets. The last line of defense is the cops themselves, shield-to-shield like Roman soldiers. While it is advantageous to be mobile and responsive, one wounded or panicked individual can cause the wall to be breached or flanked. 

Baltimore police deployed all of these methods over the last few weeks, backed up by lines of National Guard trucks. When I went to the protest at City Hall the day after the indictments, the building was insulated with a buffer zone of crowd barricades, soldiers, and vehicles. Protestors were funneled through control points formed by guardsmen. The logical progression of this sort of emergency tactical defensive urbanism can be seen Baghdad -- sectioning the city with Jersey barriers, Bremer walls, and  Hesco bastions, manned with checkpoints. While I'm not suggesting Baltimore is going to turn to sectarian civil war anytime soon, the design intent of recent police action is on an iterative continuum with more extreme methods of controlling population mobility. 

Blue light camera,  via the Baltimore Sun.

Blue light camera, via the Baltimore Sun.

On any battlefield, physical infrastructure must be reinforced with network and knowledge infrastructure -- what warfighters call situational awareness. Baltimore installed its first blue light cameras -- temporary boxes posted on light poles in high-crime areas -- in 2005 under then-mayor (now presidential candidate) Martin O'Malley. By 2012, the city was up to 583, plus a network of over 250 surveillance systems in private businesses that the police could see in real-time. Overall, the program costs $1.4 million per year to administer, leading to mostly low-level drug arrests and general deterrence against property crimes.

Part of O'Malley's CitiStat program, the idea was to use data to target high-crime areas with extra enforcement and sweeping arrests for low-level crimes to clear streets of potential trouble. While murders ticked marginally down over those years, the methodology also criminalized an unprecedented percentage of the population, leaving a trail of rap sheets that have kept folks out of the work force or other productive activity. 

Subsequent mayors Sheila Dixon and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expanded the surveillance state even further. In cooperation with the FBI, Baltimore police used "Stingray" devices that mimic cellphone towers to steal locational data and text messages from citizens. Ultimately, they targeted over 4,000 people without warrants. During the riots, they upped the ante with flyovers by surveillance aircraft using infrared trackers, aerial photography, and Stingrays to track crowd movement. 

New plans for McKeldin Fountain,  via Bmore Art. 

New plans for McKeldin Fountain, via Bmore Art. 

City leaders are now concentrating on turning tactics into strategy. In parallel with the destruction of Baltimore's last Brutalist masterpiece, the Morris Mechanic Theater, the Downtown Partnership is agitating to replace McKeldin Fountain at the corner of Pratt and Light. While I'm not necessarily a fan of the fountain on its formal merits, it is a lively urban corner despite being hemmed in by traffic and rather un-maintained. Officials propose replacing it with a bland, oh-so-of-the-moment Bjarke Ingels knock-off Dorito lawn and "water feature." Ostensibly about cleaning up an eyesore and rationalizing traffic, the underlying mechanisms are more disturbing.

Right now, McKeldin Fountain is public space. Occupy protestors lived on the site for several months in 2011. Under the new plan, ownership of the land would be ceded to the private corporation that owns Harborplace, our fair city's mall-by-the-water. That would make the land off-limits to public assembly, and able to be cleared of protestors at any time by law. 

There are no crowd barriers, blue light cameras, or corporate takeovers of public space in many of Baltimore's neighborhoods. That's because these neighborhoods are healthy, from an urban design perspective, with full occupancy, clean streets, decent schools, and a vibrant, balanced mix of commercial and residential use. Jane Jacobs, patron saint of thoughtful urbanists, identified "eyes on the street" as a key condition for safe urban space. 

In neighborhoods missing residential density, studded with vacants, we've replaced the casual eyes of our neighbors with cameras and cops, hoping to replicate the effects. We've let parks, schools, and public space deteriorate into minefields of anti-homeless spikes, orphan traffic cones, and two-foot grass. We are defending against ourselves, afraid that tears in the urban fabric will split the whole city apart. But containment is not a strategy, and history has taught us that offense is the best defense.

The only way to defend our neighborhoods is to make them vibrant again. The walls have been breached. Perhaps it's time we rethink why we keep building them. 

William HolmanComment