City of Safety

Planning in the age of terrorism

Urbanist Article October 1, 2001

Will the terrorist attacks succeedin doing permanentdamage to our country? Ithink everyone in America is trying tofigure out how not to let that happen.As a city planner, my thoughts, naturally,go to what this will mean forAmerica’s cities.

Clearly, the attacks have madea lot of companies think twice aboutlocating in high-profile, high-riseoffice buildings. But terrorism is likelyto have an even more profound andlong-lasting impact on our cities. Citybuildingis an essential part of our civilization,and I fear that the terroristshave struck a vulnerable part of ourculture by attacking our attachment tocities as a place to live and work. Overthe next several years, Americans willthink hard about how to make communitiessafer. The guiding image ofwhat makes a good city will be, formany people, a city of safety.

Cities As Targets

Cities have frequently been shaped byconcerns about defense. In many places,until the advent of modern, high-powerartillery, cities had protective walls aroundthem, which alsoconstrained outward growth. Expandingthe walls outward could only be donewith great effort and expense.

Modern warfare seems to havehad the opposite effect, causing citiesto spread out. After World War II, awhole series of new British towns werebuilt beyond London, in part to dispersethe population away from bombing.Highways in America were builtpartly for military purposes. The 1956Federal-Aid Highway Act dedicatedthe country to building a national systemof interstate and defensehighways. Thus, urban form was shaped by thedesire to escape from cities under realor possible attack.

Terrorism is likely to pushcities even farther in the direction ofdispersal. It makes us view our landscapedifferently, through the lens ofwhat makes a good target.For a few hours on September11, there was a rumor that planes werestill in the air, waiting to be crashedinto something else. Would it be SanFrancisco? The TransamericaPyramid? The Golden Gate Bridge?The famous monuments were obvioustargets. But so, too, are the life supportsystems of the city—the water linesfrom the Sierra, or the (one) powercorridor connecting San Franciscodown the Peninsula to the rest of theenergy grid. Or BART, or the BayBridge .

In fact, when we start to thinkabout our city as a target, it quicklybecomes clear that we are hopelessly,irrevocably vulnerable. Any place thathas a well-loved identity is a target.Any network of infrastructure that wedepend on is just sitting there, weimagine, attracting the eye of someangry suicide bomber.

After September 11, we havecome to realize that cities are fragilecreations. They cannot withstandattacks. Cities need peace to thrive.

The Attack From Within

Our problem is made worse because inAmerica, a different kind of attack oncities was launched from within a longtime ago. Every year, companies moveto the suburbs. They are driven bymany things: cheap land, access to suburbanworkers, or proximity to thesuburban mansions of top tier executives.One suspects they are also luredby the anonymity of the office parks. Itmust have frustrated Chevron enormouslyto have a tall building with aplaza out in front, that functioned as astage for protesters to bring up criticismsof the military-petroleum complex.There is no public life in officeparks, no public streets with passersby,no place to hold a protest.

The day after the attack, NewYork Mayor Rudy Giuliani was on thephone to persuade Wall Street companiesto remain in the city. Ed Koch,former mayor, told the TV camerasthat New York needed to rebuild thetwin towers, as a symbol of America’sdefiance of terrorism. But can anyoneimagine companies renting space in anidentically-rebuilt World TradeCenter?

The suburban office parks,with their lack of character and homogeneity,must look very attractive tocorporate executives, not just inManhattan, but everywhere. If carriedto its logical extreme, this could triggera large exodus of firms out of thecentral cities.

And what about residences?Already a large proportion of the newhomes built in California are in gatedcommunities. It’s easy to imagine theterrorist attacks adding to this trend, asAmericans seek the false comfort ofgates.

In a city designed primarilyfor safety, maybe all forms of high densityliving and working would beconsidered too dangerous. Centralizedinfrastructure, in the form of bridgesand transmission lines, might seem toovulnerable. Settlements would bedesigned as a series of decentralized,independent parts, so that an attack onone piece wouldn’t bring down theothers. And above all, the goal wouldbe anonymity, a physical environmentdesigned not to be noticed.

If all of these trends soundeasy to imagine because we’ve alreadyseen them, that’s exactly my point. Weare vulnerable to the terrorists’ attackon our urban way of life preciselybecause it preys on fears we alreadyhave.

What Are Cities For?

Cities are inventions to bring peopletogether and concentrate human energy.By allowing large numbers of peopleto congregate, cities allow likemindedpeople to find each other.Cities are, therefore, the birthplaces ofnew artistic movements and fringepolitical groups, for the same reasonsthat they foster business innovations.

From an environmental perspective,cities are the most efficientway to organize human settlement. Onthe most basic level, building “up”instead of “out” conserves land.Density is the only antidote to sprawl.Other benefits flow from this: clusteringpeople and jobs and shops closelytogether makes it possible to walk ortake transit. Density is the only antidoteto car dependency.

From an economic perspective,cities are also efficient. Whenbusiness people are walking to meetings—or the essential business lunch—they are, in fact, taking advantage of afundamental economic principleseconomies of agglomeration. This ideaspeaks to the benefits a firm receivesfrom being near to other firms—benefitssuch as the ability to share a laborpool, a creative interchange of ideaswith people outside the firm, or theability to outsource support functionsto other companies. Face to face communicationis still important for industriesthat depend on innovation. In thislight, a mass exodus out of inner citieswould weaken the country’s economyin the long run.

The urban form of a cityexpresses the kinds of activities thattake place in it, and the values of thepeople who live in the city.

The chaotic jumble of buildingfacades which distinguish Americancities from their European counterpartsexpress this country’s ideals concerningindividuality and propertyownership. Land owners build accordingto their own timing and their owntastes. Small parcels lead to smallbuilding footprints, giving form to analmost Jeffersonian notion of dispersedproperty ownership.

Public spaces—parks, plazas,and streets—express the ideal of ademocratic public sphere, a placeshared by people from different walksof life. At their best, our public spaceswelcome different activities and differentcultural groups, expressing valuesof tolerance and diversity.

Tall buildings express both thepower of the occupants and the importanceof the place. Whereas inmedieval cities, the church spires werethe tallest structures, in American citiestoday, it is skyscrapers with corporationsin them. This displays a truthabout our culture, that the pursuit ofeconomic gain is highly valued. But tallbuildings are more than symbols ofcapitalism; they are symbols ofAmerican urbanism itself. SanFrancisco’s Urban Design Plan says,“These buildings, as soaring towers in awhite city, connote the power and prosperityof man’s modern achievements.”

And finally, cities as a wholecan be seen as expressions of humansociability itself. The miracle of bringingso many people together is in itselfa celebration of our mutual interdependence .The terrorist attack on NewYork must be seen as an attack on all ofthese complex values. It was an attackon our urban way of life.

Cities: A Work In Progress

America is not perfect. No country is.But many of us have dedicated ourlives to making it better, to helping thecountry live up to its highest ideals.

We must not unintentionallydo more damage to our country thanthe terrorists could do themselves. Tome, this means we must not abandonthe values of publicness, urbanity, andsocial interdependence—cities, inshort.

America has been ambivalentabout cities for a long time. They havebeen abandoned, under-funded, tornapart, ignored, misunderstood. Butthey are still works in progress. A fragileurban renaissance has been takingplace in most of America’s big cities.People are moving back to many cities,after decades of declining population.Cities are experimenting with newforms of public transit that are suitedto modern conditions. A new era ofpark design is being invented. We arefinally learning how to live gracefullywith the automobile. New forms ofwork are being invented to take theplace of older forms that have left thecity. The list of our unfinished workgoes on and on.

This is not a defense of citiesas they are, or our country as it is. It isa defense of our right to continue theendless work of perfecting our citiesand our country. There probably arechanges we should make to our citiesin response to the terrorism. We willneed to consider designing for greaterredundancy in our infrastructure (notjust BART, for example, but a secondtube under the bay and extra capacityat ferry terminals). Or looking foropportunities to decentralize electricalgeneration (solar panels on rooftops, toreduce dependency on centralizedpower plants). We will need to revampour emergency response system andour hospitals, and a long list of otherpublic services. Some of these changesare things we should have done anyway.Others are forced on us now. AtSPUR, we will continue our work promotingpositive, practical change tobring about a livable, healthy urbanfuture for San Francisco. The life ofthis city will go on, and we will be apart of it.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director of SPUR.

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