The Urbanomics Archive Trailer

, 2008


The Urbanomics Archive Trailer. 2008


A short trailer made for the Street Art, Street Life exhibition at the Bronx Museum in 2008. Illustrating photos and research of defensive design ongoing since 1995, found in the Defensive Architecture section of this website.




Working Hard to be Useless, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Utah, USA, 2018 

Street Art, Street Life, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, NY, USA. 2008


Accompanying exhibition text


Nils Norman

The Urbanomics Archive



A vernacular of terror is stalking our city streets and public spaces.


During the past two decades a trenchant re-regulation and redaction of public space has – in the words of the urban geographer Neil Smith – ‘culminated in the multiple closures, erasures, inundations and transfigurations of public space at the behest of state and corporate strategies.‘ Using supposedly anti-terrorist policies in order to create a wholly unprecedented circumscription of popular uses of public space, the clampdown on public space, in the name of enforcing public safety and homeland security, has been dramatic. Public spaces have succumbed to a surge in expert administration and its coordination and management by a specific group of class interests. The lost geography of the public sphere has developed alongside a concurrent loss of politics and the new social order that the state and financial elites struggle to present as normal.

These class interests are reflected in the constantly unfolding design of street furniture, bollards, lampposts, traffic islands, pedestrian barriers, planters, flower beds, city squares, bus stops, street signage and cctv. Preventative designs implemented to instil a certain level of fear and displace unwanted groups and activities in cities that are increasingly being handed over to corporate and military control.


The militarization of public spaces is in some cities quite obvious, where military vehicles and personnel openly guard buildings and streets. In other places its presence is represented by a symbolic colour code system of international Threat Levels: The 5 Codes. This ranges from green representing a slight threat of terrorist attack to red as the most severe state of alert. Since 2002 most of the United States has been on Code Yellow: Elevated Threat. But New York City has been on code Orange – Major Threat.


Financial centres are the best places to observe these changes. Here the interests of particular groups are increasingly made visibly secure. The quality of everyday life and urban space is physically and symbolically sacrificed for a ramped up layering of temporarily permanent fortifications. Design groups, banks and the state work closely with military advisors to develop designs drawn from and mixture of mediaeval, martial and 18th century picturesque landscape gardening techniques: Barriers, moats, Ha-has, raised beds, check-points, sentry boxes, ramps, ramparts, viewing platforms, planters, bollards and turntables.


More recently moats of collapsible concrete have been built around certain buildings. This is a technology that has been adapted from the aviation industry in which the concrete literally collapses when a heavy vehicle drives across it. It has been given the more adventurous sounding safari-like name of Tiger Traps.


Unruly parcels of pavement: Spaces Left Over After Planning, are often called "Gap sites", "Leaking Spaces". These are sites, which are too small to develop, but large enough to encourage loitering or homeless camps, are often reclaimed with "Viewing gardens": dioramic enclosed micro-parks that are cultivated with low-maintenance hardy shrubs to re-establish control over unfixed difficult spaces. Bum-free studs, and anti-loitering devices proliferate on banks and in larger public gathering spaces. In some railway stations and malls the constant loop of electronic classical music, or the regular sprinkling of water, have become simple and successful devices to deter unwanted groups of people from hanging around. Recently the Mosquito has been used – a high-pitched sound emitting device that deters teenagers from loitering, the only people with sensitive enough ears to hear it.


Practical as well as symbolic designs are experimented with, and are constantly tweaked and minutely adjusted, in the manner of a logo, or an instrument of torture. City space is quietly altered to maximimise its control and circulation. Benches become bum-free, which in turn become"perches", which are in turn removed. The only places left to sit, rest or urinate, are what Mike Davis calls the ‘Pseudo public spaces’ of coffee bar chains and fast food restaurants. The removal of public amenities has resulted in the public nuisance of urinating in the street, which in turn has created a proliferation of anti-urination devices and mobile and mostly inadequate male only pissoirs.


Many areas in Manhattan, New York, are now controlled by corporate run Business Initiative Districts or BIDs. These have become highly successful in controlling city spaces and redesigning smaller city parks. Using curfews, no-maintenance shrubbery, private security and clean-up teams, little fold-up garden chairs, and a list of rules that, among other things, disallow the removal of items from waste bins and allow only one person per chair. The new designs are so successful as a gentrification tool that the spaces are almost perfectly smooth through their ability to control and manage usage, raise property values, and reinvent neighbourhood demographics.


City spaces change as capitalism updates itself, and their designs reflect these changes. What is interesting to observe is the shift from an "uninterrupted", bourgeois public sphere to a more contemporary, contained corporate urban space reminiscent of airport security, immigration zones or occupied cities. Ironically a predominant ongoing clichéd theme is a Disneyfied version of Hausmann’s Paris. Like Hausmannization – which signalled free enterprise and the creation of the middle class consumer - the new designs reflect a redevelopment in distribution – Disneyfication, militarization and the creation of a corporate consumer class. Spaces are redefined to control, manage and corral users. As city spaces become cleaner and more symbolically "safe", defensive design becomes more abundant and paranoid, and the evocation of fear becomes predominant within designs that more often than not have no other proven function. All US civic buildings foreign and domestic have now become heavily fortified military facilities with an onion-like layering of fences, gates, checkpoints and roadblocks, pre-empting a more permanent, concrete, siege architecture. The fear and threat that something might happen is now part of the vernacular of urban design.


Nils Norman began the Urbanomics Archive in 1995. It is an ongoing photographic archive and research project investigating the changing developments in defensive design and security architecture.