MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So it sort of kind of goes without saying that memorials, like the one dedicated to Chuck Brown, are designed to be noticed and appreciated. Well, not so much with the structures we'll be talking about next. As Lauren Ober tells us, these things are located all over downtown D.C. and yet they get very little love from either locals or tourists.
MS. LAUREN OBER
This is a story about bollards.
MR. KENT FINNERTY
Bollards? You mean like basketball players who have a lot of money?
No. Not ballers, bollards, with a "D".
Oh, bollards. I'm not sure what that means.
That was Kent Finnerty (sp?), taking a break from his Sunday roller hockey game outside the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where no one else knew what bollards were either. But Finnerty and his stick-wielding pals playing on the blocked-off street were all benefitting from the presence of bollards. You're going to see the word bollard a lot in this story, so it's probably best to define it.
A bollard is a thick post embedded deep in a sidewalk meant to prevent bomb-laden trucks from blowing up important buildings. Washington, D.C. has a ton of them, so many you probably don't even notice them anymore. They blend into the scenery like fire hydrants or mailboxes, unless you're a critic of security measures or unless you have to slalom through them in a wheelchair or you're an urban design aficionado. But each bollard is a highly engineered piece of steel meant to withstand an eight-ton truck barreling at it at 50 miles an hour.
MR. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI
The bollards that we are used to today are security devices.
That's Witold Rybczynski, an emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and a bollard expert.
They are actually quite substantial and they make much more visual impact in the city because they're relatively close together and they're quite big.
In the architectural canon, bollards go way back, all the way to Renaissance Rome, Rybczynski explains. They were a traffic-control measure to separate pedestrian areas from carriageways. Bernini's famous fountain and the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter's Square are ringed with them. Bollards have been used in the U.S. to help traffic control for years. But it wasn't until after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that they began to proliferate here in D.C.
Because the bombing was aimed, obviously, at a federal building, there was a sense that federal workers had to be protected especially. And so the president issued a directive that all federal buildings had to be protected against truck bombs. And this was just an across the board law. It happened within a week of the bombing so it wasn't something that people had deeply researched.
I'm standing at the corner of Independence Ave and Fourth Street Northwest in downtown D.C. I'm looking across the street at the National Air and Space Museum. And they've got some bollards around the building. They're just your basic stainless steel cylinders, but here at the National Museum of the American Indian, there are heavy stone bollards that look like they're maybe made of granite. There are brown steel bollards that look like they're retractable. And then there are these guys, bollards with a classic copper patina and a basket-weave design that seem to go with the motif of the museum.
Regardless of what they look like, perimeter security has to be installed around all federal buildings. And that is by law, no argument.
Whenever we would question the security experts, you always get to the point where somebody will say something like, well, we can't have one life lost because we didn't do the right thing. And that's such a devastatingly convincing argument that no one can stand up to it.
In addition to being non-negotiable, these devices aren't cheap. $7,500 will get you a basic bollard. At that price, it's hard to know whether they're worth the investment, especially since there's no hard evidence about their efficacy.
MS. CHRISTINE SAUM
We have a limited amount of money to spend and we don't want to spend it solving the last problem. We want to spend it solving the next problem.
That's Christine Saum, director of the urban design and plan review division of the National Capital Planning Commission. She spends a lot of time thinking about bollards. The commission is in charge of overseeing planning and development of federal property in the District. And incorporating perimeter security into planning is a must. But bollards aren't the only option.
In 2002, NCPC came out with a document we called our Urban Design and Security Plan that was intended to sort of inspire agencies to go beyond the planter or bollard solution and to actually design things around their buildings that fit into the environment and would actually be an improvement. Buildings like the Smithsonian Museums around the Mall or the Washington Monument, they've got a lot of space and so we were able to do landscape solutions that are actually quite attractive.
At the Washington Monument, perimeter security has been integrated into the grounds. Granite landscape walls surrounding the base have been designed to be a comfortable height so people can sit on them. Yet they are tall enough to prevent a truck from reaching the monument. The security is ingeniously invisible. As more federal buildings get upgraded, so too will their security. Instead of an ocean of bollards, D.C. might see perimeter security camouflaged as planting walls or water features or creative landscaping. Again, Saum.
I don't think you'll ever completely eliminate bollards, but you don't want it to be forbidding. We don't want our federal office buildings to be fortresses. And I think that what we're trying now is to make sure that we keep that solution from being the default.
But for now, until the people who make decisions about security become more design-minded, bollards it is. I'm Lauren Ober.
If you'd like to see photos of some of the many different kinds of bollards in D.C., you're in luck. We have a handy-dandy slide show on our website, metroconnection.org. And we're curious, do you know of any well-designed bollards, outside a local building? Or do you have a great idea for making bollards a bit more, I don't know, pretty? Send us an email. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time for a break, but when we get back, will the looming health care overhaul mean a redesign for HIV outreach?
MR. RON SIMMONS
I've already told my staff, I've said, I can't guarantee you that you'll all be here in three years.
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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