Jorunn Monrad, Cultural Heritage Manager in Odda, Norway, considers how urban design might contribute to the risk factors that motivate people to commit terrorist attacks - and how urban design can help facilitate coexistence.
We have been shaken by the terrorist attacks which have recently occurred in Europe. There is no doubt that terror organizations have inspired or helped, if not recruited, many of the perpetrators. Of course many motivators can contribute to these types of attacks: inspiration provided by other perpetrators, violence in the media, the ease with which weapons can be acquired... The list could go on, and these factors undoubtedly play an important role. And yet, we are also reminded of the attacks staged by angry young men in the US and other countries who shoot at strangers without any motive other than their own resentment, marginalization and alienation. To understand what has motivated this spate of terrorist attacks, it is hard not to wonder about the roles of frustration, a wish to get even, or the desire of the perpetrator to not only to commit suicide, but to take others along with them. And in considering how these motivations may have developed, it is important to consider the built environment in which these feelings germinate.
If we look at where many perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe come from, we discover that peripheral urban areas as the Parisian banlieu or districts as Molenbeek in Belgium are somewhat overrepresented. Many such dormitory towns have become ghettoes where a particular social and/or ethnic identity may predominate. Of course there are many positive aspects of people embracing their cultural identity and forming communities with others who share their language, culture and religion: these types of communities can support people's wellbeing. It is also perfectly possible to be part of such a community, and still be an active and well-integrated part of wider society. But the design of many of these dormitory towns may be making this less likely.
Many dormitory towns offer bleak views of identical high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by lawns in a sorry state, parked cars, and empty streets, and their design helps preclude the wider integration that we see in the traditional city. Residents of these towns may have few opportunities to see, meet or interact with people outside of their immediate social circles, other than children in playgrounds and people hurrying to or from their apartments. This setting can create feelings of isolation that can turn to segregation - and with this comes resentment, suspicion, alienation, and a feeling of 'us and them'.
No meeting places, no division between public and private sphere, and one feels like trespassing.
Photograph by J Monrad.
The sign says welcome, the fences tell a different story. Photograph by J Monrad.
On the other hand, city residents are more likely to find themselves regularly interacting with people of different ethnicities and social classes. They meet in the streets, squares, offices, banks, cafes and parks. While these people may not become friends in the course of their daily business (the invisible line dividing the public sphere from the private is seldom crossed) they learn the unwritten rules of urban coexistence. They come to feel part of a loose-knit community of diverse strangers. And through this daily, routine personal exposure to a diversity of people, the urban environment gives residents a setting in which to recognise that people of different origins are more similar to themselves, and less threatening, than one may be led to believe from watching the news.
People are brought together in dense cities with varied streetscapes that combine dwellings on the upper floors with businesses on the ground floor Photograph by J Monrad.
This particular feeling of belonging may not make any difference to a determined terrorist. But to someone in the category of “angry young man” the small acts of kindness and courtesy which you may witness in a city street across socioeconomic, ethnic, and other divides may make all the difference. While waiting for the tram in a street in Milan, I witnessed a badly dressed man sitting on a windowsill and begging passers-by for a cigarette. The neighbourhood is inhabited by a mixture of Italians, Chinese, Latin Americans, North Africans, Indians and many other nationalities of people. The man was desperate for a smoke, as he loudly announced. A stylish lady in high heels stopped and offered him one from her pack, with an elegant gesture. He straightened up and thanked with similar dignity, as if recalling past and better times. The lady was not afraid: there were others waiting for the tram, and the man in need of a smoke was sitting there alone. When someone offers a destitute person a cigarette, a coffee or an ice cream, it is a way of saying “it could have been me”. Life is uncertain, and nobody is quite safe from misfortune. Such small gestures can make difficulties easier to bear, and avoid resentment towards those who are more fortunate.
Urban designers can create essential opportunities for people from all walks of life to meet, to interact. Members of ethnic groups must feel that they belong both to their ethnic community, and to the community formed by the inhabitants of their neighbourhood or city. We must avoid creating a feeling of an “us” and “them”, and we must facilitate opportunities for everyone to learn the unwritten rules of urban co-existence.
Creating urban spaces that set the stage for more interaction, and trying to counteract the desolation of some of these dormitory towns, may not be sufficient to tip the balance. But when we design new urban spaces, we should try to bring people from all ethnicities and social classes together in the same public spaces. It is, amongst other things, a matter of creating attractive, upscale public areas with a wide range of businesses and other activities on street level, and combining them with a variegated offer of dwellings. Changing the Parisian banlieu may be a more daunting challenge, but even in such areas it is possible to create inviting urban areas, and in doing so, perhaps reduce the marginalization and resentment that can motivate people to make destructive choices.
This is how German architect and urban planner Ludwig Hilbersheimer envisioned cities in the 1920’s. His efficient, homogenous, and anonymous buildings that preclude social interaction have helped inspire today's dormitory towns.
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