Urban Resilience and ‘the event’

What can the disruptive protest at this weekend’s University boat race tell us about resilience planning in London ahead of the 2012 Games?

On Saturday 7th April a lone protester, Trenton Oldfield, disrupted the annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race on the River Thames in London by swimming, unchallenged, into the path of the onrushing boats. Immediately connections were made between the ease by which one person could disrupt a high profile event and the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympiad in London amidst fears it could suffer from similar, or worse, disruption – see for example the Observer’s Olympic security fear piece.

Lockdown security has sadly become a leitmotif of contemporary high profile events such as the Olympics with the type of security operation and resilience planning put in place before, during and after the event telling us a lot about the security culture in a particular country. Such events showcase urban resilience capacity (albeit on a temporary basis)  providing an indication of the preparedness of the host city to pre-plan for a range of likely, or indeed improbable, security incidents. As Colin Bennett and Kevin Haggerty’s excellent Security Games edited collection (2011) highlighted, mega events have become the ultimate experiments in the pervasive monitoring of people and places.

Security planning will not only highlight urban resilience but also showcase urban vulnerability. In the case of London, and other cities hosting large scale events, this is most noticeable when dealing with large public gatherings where a balance has to be struck between punitive security and freedom of movement – what one 2012 organiser referred to as ‘customer sensitive security’. Whereas for London 2012, securing the main Olympic park area, already fenced off in Island security mode, might be relatively straight forward, what about the softer targets that present themselves to would-be intruders, or in the worst-case scenario, terrorists? The crowded public places in which people will gather to watch Olympic events such as the marathon or the pre-event torch relay, even with thousands of police on patrol, will be impossible to secure completely. In such a scenario, planning is currently ongoing in London to assess how authorities might respond to, and bounce-back from, such threats should they become a reality.

As recent work has noted, no city is better prepared than London to cope with the myriad of possible disruptive challenges during the Olympic Games, given its long history of resilience planning for terrorism stretching back to the 1970s, but this is no time for complacency. Despite the ongoing work of the London Resilience Partnership which emphasises the thinking through of all possible scenarios (and some unthinkable ones), and attempting as far as possible to minimise the risk to athletes and spectators, the potential for security breaches and protests, (as evidenced by the Boat Race), to disrupt the Games remains high. August in East London will no doubt be a nervous time for competing athletes and security professionals alike.

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