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This is a story about 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. They blend into the scenery like fire hydrants or mailboxes. Many you probably don't even notice them anymore, 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.
"They're actually quite substantial," says Witold Rybczynski, an emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and a bollard expert. "And they make much more visual impact in the city because they're relatively close together and they're quite big."
It's all about security
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 control traffic 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 at a federal building, there was a sense that federal workers had to be protected especially," Rybczynski says. "So the president issued a directive that all federal buildings had to be protected against truck bombs. 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."
First came Jersey barriers — those long, temporary, concrete blockades used on highways. Then came the bollards — "steel crabgrass" as Rybczynski calls them. Lots of them. Shiny stainless steel bollards, green fluted bollards with the presidential seal, bollards with classy copper patinas.
Some of the bollards were disguised as benches or planters or heavy-duty light posts. Regardless of what they looked like, perimeter security had to be installed. By law. No arguments.
"Whenever we would question the security experts, someone would say something like 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," Rybczynski says.
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.
"We have a limited amount of money to spend and we don't want to spend it solving the last problem," says Christine Saum, director of the urban design and plan review division of the National Capital Planning Commission. "We want to spend it solving the next problem."
Saum spends a lot of time thinking about bollards. The commission is in charge of overseeing planning and development of federal property in the District. Incorporating perimeter security into planning is a must.
But bollards aren't the only option.
Implementing more creative security
"In 2002, the NCPC came out with a document called Urban Design and Security Plan that was intended to inspire agencies to go beyond planter or bollard solutions and to actually design things around their buildings that fit into the environment and would actually be an improvement," says Saum. "Buildings like the museums around the Mall or the Washington Monument, they've got a lot of space and 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 instead see perimeter security camouflaged as planting walls, water features and creative landscaping.
"I don't think you'll ever completely eliminate bollards, but you don't want our federal office buildings to be fortresses," Saum says. "I think what we're trying now is to 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.
[Music: "Funk Design" by Nobody from The Free Design]