Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Home Front: Big Dumb Blocks

As first seen on Breach Bang & Clear: Big Dumb Blocks

Following the recent mass-casualty vehicle attacks in Charlottesville and New York City, I'm prompted to finish a piece I've been working on related to these tragic and horrific incidents.

Back in January 2017, a dude out on parole thought he'd dodge a police pursuit by driving through a crowded pedestrian mall in Melbourne on a Friday afternoon during school holidays. Within the thronging crowd, 35 were injured — two critically — and by the end of the rampage, four people (including ten-year-old Thalia Hakin, 22-year old Jess Mudie, 33-year old Matthew Si, and an unidentified 25-year old man) died on the scene.

Five-month-old Zachary Bryant later died in hospital, while his two-year-old sister survived her injuries. Ten days after the attack, 33-year-old Bhavita Patel died in hospital.

Police officers rammed the car and the driver was shot in the arm before being arrested. He was charged with six counts of murder and 28 counts of attempted murder.

Bourke St Mall bollards are staggered along the pedestrian access. Tram lines are obviously unblocked.

Witnesses reported mass chaos in the wake of this attack in Melbourne. Most people were uncertain what to do, while some courageous first-responding citizens rendered first aid and moved stricken victims out of danger until the driver was neutralized. Since it's effectively an unarmed society, there was little to be done to stop the driver. All bystanders could do was attempt to avoid the danger and helplessly watch the attack unfold before their eyes.

But in a paved pedestrian mall, where and how can people take shelter from a steel-bodied motorized human crusher?

June rolled around and the Victorian state government proposed a solution to the problem of vehicular slaughter, taking a page from WWII static defense, and installed dragon's teeth. Around sixty concrete bollards appeared at key Melbourne locations overnight, a rollout of "anti-terror" devices to prevent a vehicle attack similar to those in London or Nice. Lines of concrete bollards are now in place along scenic Southbank Boulevard, near Queensbridge St. and Crown Casino, and at Southern Cross Station — all popular crowd-filled locations.

Overnight, upwards of 140 concrete bollards were placed at eight locations, adding to those already installed on June 10th in the Bourke St. Mall and at Federation Square.

My size 11's putting some personal perspective on the Big Dumb Block issue.

The bollards aren't the classically pyramid-shaped dragon's teeth of the Atlantic Wall, but they follow the same general principle.

The three-foot cubes are made of utilitarian concrete, with rebar fittings to make them easier to haul and crane into place. They're crude and ugly, to the chagrin of the cultured and erudite Melbournite. To my eye, they offer safe haven if you manage to get behind them "Run Forrest RUN!"-style, and also provide a disincentive for attackers to mount the curb and ram squishy pedestrian herds. Some rough eyeball guesses and fast math suggests that the 1m cubes would likely weigh around 2.5 tonnes (around 5,500 pounds). Staggered as they are, I feel pretty safe that a driver of a rogue car, van, or light truck would come to a pretty abrupt and painful stop if they chased me past one at speed.

So, big dumb blocks started littering our scenic spots, offering refuge and deterrence. As I said, big, dumb UGLY blocks.

Some serious thought went into their placement. Sub-committees were formed and met weekly, no doubt. Melbourne Council installed the bollards at the request of the State Government and Victoria Police. The new locations are:

* Queensbridge Square at Queensbridge Street, Southbank
* Queensbridge Square at the intersection with Southbank Boulevard footpath
* Boathouse Drive under Princes Bridge
* Federation Square at the Swanston Street/Flinders Street intersection
* Flinders Street Station at the Swanston Street/Flinders Street intersection
* Southern Cross Station between Collins Street and Lt Collins Street
* Southern Cross Station at Bourke Street
* Queen Victoria Market surrounds

Federation Square bollards are staggered along the sidewalk curb. Tram lines and roads remain unobstructed.

In a statement, the council stated, “The concrete barriers will provide greater security to people visiting and gathering in the city. We will continue to work closely with State Government and Victoria Police to ensure public areas are kept secure.”

Police Minister Lisa Neville said more bollards would go in around Melbourne at new, unnamed locations. “These are temporary, these are not what people will have to put up with forever,” she told radio 3AW’s Neil Mitchell the morning of their arrival. “It would be great if we didn’t need to have this, it does change the nature of our city a little bit.”

Thirty to forty bollards line the entry to the busy Southern Cross station, preventing cars from entering. The bollards are similar to those placed at Federation Square earlier this month, as part of the state government move to prevent terror attacks in Melbourne’s CBD.

A longways view of Federation Square bollards staggered along the sidewalk curb.

As soon as the bollards started showing up, people started decorating them. Painted stencils, slogans, and even fabric covers brightened up the cold grey slabs of concrete. Predictably, this then brought on an anti-graffiti response from the Victorian police. Artist duo Cit Cat alleged its members were threatened with arrest for painting stencils on a bollard.

"I think we can reach a very good understanding with Victoria Police that says the bollards are almost like Hosier Lane – they're fair targets, fair game (for street artists)," Mr. Doyle told Fairfax Media. "Police ... threatened to arrest me if I didn't give my name," one of the artists said. "They told me they would process the issue and to expect a summons in the mail."

Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle said police were "maybe ... a little overzealous" in reprimanding Cit Cat. "I suppose by the letter of the law it is illegal – it is damaging other people's property, it's not ours," he said."However, I do think when there is organic creativity and humor, the last thing we should be doing is stamping on it."

A spokesperson for Cit Cat said governments had initially sent "mixed messages" on what was and wasn't appropriate by promoting street art to tourists. "Street art is part of Melbourne," he said, adding that it was "incredible" the lord mayor had now endorsed painting the bollards.

"I have spoken to the police today to more or less say 'let's just cool our jets, let's just watch what happens'." Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has given street artists the green light to paint hundreds of concrete safety bollards in the CBD.

concrete blocks, big blocks, blocks

Mayor Doyle had already given a tick of approval to the cloth covers members of the public have added to some of the bollards. There are currently approximately 200 of these "temporary" bollards scattered around the CBD, installed as anti-terror measures. Reports of up to 500 in total when more are rolled out in coming months.

The bollards are on loan from crowd control supplier Harry the Hirer and the council would likely need to return them in the condition they were given, Mayor Doyle said. "But we've got graffiti removal units who are quite expert at doing that," he said. A green light for street art on the bollards did not mean people could simply "tag" them, however, and the council reserved the right to remove anything "offensive or obscene." The City of Melbourne has a detailed policy on graffiti and street art management, including definitions on what constitutes street art and designating places such as Hosier Lane available for artists to use.

However, Melbourne rose to the challenge. My favorite so far is the perfect LEGO cube in "Welcome to Melbourne" livery. The little kid in the photo above shared my sentiment.

concrete blocks, big blocks, blocks

Finally, Mayor Doyle announced that it could take up to a year for permanent bollards to replace the temporary ones, but that he would be open to keeping some of the best artistic contributions.

"If we get a series of these that become much loved that are really very clever and additions to the streetscape, of course, I would consider keeping them," he said. A Victoria Police spokesperson said police will "respect the rights of the City of Melbourne in regards to their property."

"There are offenses relating to criminal damage, littering, and graffiti which could be applicable, however, every incident is treated on a case-by-case basis," they said.

I suppose stopping vehicular spree murderers is hard to do preemptively, and malicious bollard-taggers can be caught red-handed. But as long as the authorities are going to be putting these up to protect the thronging hordes — and I sincerely hope the blocks achieve that goal — I also hope people will have a go prettying them up. Concrete is cheap, and so is sidewalk space. Little kids minding their own damn business is priceless.

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