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Amsterdam’s Dam Square: Maintaining Vibrant Public Space...

Amsterdam’s Dam Square: Maintaining Vibrant Public Space in a Time of Terrorism

“Leisure is the ideal of life.” This alluring ideology promoted by the municipality of Amsterdam as central to the lifestyle of the ‘Dam city dwellers, draws nearly 16 million tourists to the Netherlands each year. While the country’s tourism industry as a whole has steadily grown since 2011, Amsterdam is the brightest attraction hosting 12.4

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“Leisure is the ideal of life.” This alluring ideology promoted by the municipality of Amsterdam as central to the lifestyle of the ‘Dam city dwellers, draws nearly 16 million tourists to the Netherlands each year. While the country’s tourism industry as a whole has steadily grown since 2011, Amsterdam is the brightest attraction hosting 12.4 million hotel guests annually. It’s no surprise; a short walk through the city center reveals the interweaving of world-class bicycle culture, historic canals and vibrant public spaces that the city offers almost effortlessly. The management and design of these spaces which can support a diversity of activities and individuals, however, is growing increasingly complex as crowded public places are viewed as potential targets for terrorism.

Over the last 40 years, more than 12,000 incidents of terrorism amassing over 73,000 casualties have occurred in cities worldwide. Significant media attention has brought the threat of terrorism into the public consciousness of Western cities through the coverage of recent attacks in London, New York, Barcelona, and Stockholm, among others. The spaces most at risk of a terrorist attack are those which you would typically see as a tourist; bustling city centers and crowded public plazas, financial districts and places of symbolic importance. Targeting these areas can create widespread panic, fear, loss of capital and the spread of a powerful message worldwide. Namely, a message which attempts to undermine diversity, freedom, and democracy. In response, cities are trying to preemptively protect their citizens and visitors through various security measures rolling out on streets, plazas, and even entire districts.

Street furniture such as these decorative planters can be observed in Dam Square intended to secure the space from a hostile vehicle

The Netherlands is no exception; the Office of the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) announced in 2013 that the national threat level had risen from a “limited” to a “substantial” threat of terror. Alongside this classification, the government increased funding for structural counterterrorist projects by $10.5 million in 2016, a number that is expected to grow to $23 million by 2019. This means that many of the bustling and lively public spaces well known to the image of Amsterdam are beginning to transform. While these changes are viewed as necessary for protecting vulnerable users of space from being a victim of terror, some alterations have implications that may extend beyond public security, altering the atmosphere of the space fundamentally.

Dam Square, in the heart of Amsterdam, embodies a typical planning response to the threat of terrorism that is unfolding in cities throughout Europe and North America. The square is of symbolic and financial importance as it is home to a Royal Palace, a National Monument to memorialize World War II and De Nieuwe Kirk, a 15th-century gothic meeting place which hosts art, cultural exhibitions, and royal ceremonies. Over time, the surroundings of the square developed into a series of shopping streets with a huge presence of international retailers. The shops, combined with the striking architectural design that the square offers, make Dam Square one of the biggest tourist destinations in Amsterdam. Thus, it’s a spot which requires some careful planning on how to best protect its visitors from potential danger. In order to do so, the government must provide a mix of interventions which can balance maintaining an open and free society while sufficiently securing vulnerable users of space.

While some of the counter-terror concrete blocks in Dam Square are visible signs of security, others have been altered to be more nuanced; blending into the urban design as benches.

The most prominent solutions which have become part of Dam Square are concrete blocks. In August 2017, following a brutal attack where a van drove into a crowded pedestrian walkway in Barcelona, almost 100 concrete blocks were placed in the Amsterdam square in order to prevent a hostile vehicle from entering the space. Some of the blocks are more visible signs of protection while others have been altered to be more nuanced; blending into the urban design as concrete benches topped with wood, or made from stone. Sprinkled in between the blocks are large circular planters which serve the same purpose.

Placing protective barriers in the prominent city plaza may seem like a simple solution but should be undertaken with careful consideration and receive ongoing monitoring to see how the measures are functioning in the space. Actively communicating security measures can unintentionally increase fear among the public and can institutionalize class, race, gender, geography, and citizenship, making some individuals feel more unsafe while occupying highly secured space, rather than protected. Physical and overt elements such as barriers, bollards, and fences have also been found to contribute to more negative perceptions of space, garnering criticism for making the public realm feel rigid and unpleasant for individuals who fit a “risk profile.” More covert or invisible elements, such as the planters and street furniture seen at Dam Square, may decrease how threatening a space feels.

Two visitors of Dam Square share a bench that is intended to secure the space from potentially hostile vehicles.

So how does Dam Square feel to everyday individuals? Walking through the square on a busy afternoon, visitors appear to be comfortable, enjoying the space free from anxiety produced by the design. The concrete blocks that separate multiple lanes of traffic from the plaza aren’t all aesthetically pleasing, however, they disappear into the landscape as they are occupied by people relaxing, talking with friends, or sharing lunch. The liveliness of the plaza remains high and the space is occupied by a diversity of people. While people tend to avoid sitting on the blunt concrete blocks, those which have been outfitted as benches are quite popular and pleasant for visitors. Contrary to notions of what physical barriers can do to negatively affect space, these blocks seem to actually improve the plaza: providing places to sit where there otherwise would not be. The lack of symbolic security features such as guards or cameras that are often used in larger European cities such as London and Paris, allows the space to feel open and not under a watchful eye.

Ultimately, it seems the municipality has achieved a balance between limited, yet necessary, security measures and sociability; remaining open and inclusive to people walking around, yet protective of the individuals who occupy it. Amsterdam is largely known for supporting a multiplicity of activities and individuals in the public realm. The way in which they secure crowded places in the city has effects on how dynamic and inclusive the city is to residents and visitors alike.

Moving forward, cities must continually evaluate the security measures they are putting into public space. Examples such as Dam Square showcase how space can remain open, democratic and lively within a counter-terror security context through minimal intervention and measures that are embedded into the urban design. While the interventions in Dam Square have definite room for aesthetic improvement, they still provide an illustrative example to other cities for maintaining a convivial public realm that inspires conversation and leisure through security planning, rather than fear or anxiety.

What other examples of integrated security design have you seen that promote social interaction and vibrancy in public spaces? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.

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Originally from Portland, Oregon, Holly is currently attending the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at University of Amsterdam. She is passionate about inclusive public space, transportation, urban observation, and human-centered design.

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