City of Safety

Planning in the age of terrorism

Urbanist Article October 1, 2001

Will the terrorist attacks succeed in doing permanent damage to our country? I think everyone in America is trying to figure out how not to let that happen. As a city planner, my thoughts, naturally, go to what this will mean for America’s cities.

Clearly, the attacks have made a lot of companies think twice about locating in high-profile, high-rise office buildings. But terrorism is likely to have an even more profound and long-lasting impact on our cities. Citybuilding is an essential part of our civilization, and I fear that the terrorists have struck a vulnerable part of our culture by attacking our attachment to cities as a place to live and work. Over the next several years, Americans will think hard about how to make communities safer. The guiding image of what makes a good city will be, for many people, a city of safety.

Cities As Targets

Cities have frequently been shaped by concerns about defense. In many places, until the advent of modern, high-power artillery, cities had protective walls around them, which also constrained outward growth. Expanding the walls outward could only be done with great effort and expense.

Modern warfare seems to have had the opposite effect, causing cities to spread out. After World War II, a whole series of new British towns were built beyond London, in part to disperse the population away from bombing. Highways in America were built partly for military purposes. The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act dedicated the country to building a national system of interstate and defensehighways. Thus, urban form was shaped by the desire to escape from cities under real or possible attack.

Terrorism is likely to push cities even farther in the direction of dispersal. It makes us view our landscape differently, through the lens of what makes a good target. For a few hours on September 11, there was a rumor that planes were still in the air, waiting to be crashed into something else. Would it be San Francisco? The Transamerica Pyramid? The Golden Gate Bridge? The famous monuments were obvious targets. But so, too, are the life support systems of the city—the water lines from the Sierra, or the (one) power corridor connecting San Francisco down the Peninsula to the rest of the energy grid. Or BART, or the Bay Bridge .

In fact, when we start to think about our city as a target, it quickly becomes clear that we are hopelessly, irrevocably vulnerable. Any place that has a well-loved identity is a target. Any network of infrastructure that we depend on is just sitting there, we imagine, attracting the eye of some angry suicide bomber.

After September 11, we have come to realize that cities are fragile creations. They cannot withstand attacks. Cities need peace to thrive.

The Attack From Within

Our problem is made worse because in America, a different kind of attack on cities was launched from within a long time ago. Every year, companies move to the suburbs. They are driven by many things: cheap land, access to suburban workers, or proximity to the suburban mansions of top tier executives. One suspects they are also lured by the anonymity of the office parks. It must have frustrated Chevron enormously to have a tall building with a plaza out in front, that functioned as a stage for protesters to bring up criticisms of the military-petroleum complex. There is no public life in office parks, no public streets with passersby, no place to hold a protest.

The day after the attack, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was on the phone to persuade Wall Street companies to remain in the city. Ed Koch, former mayor, told the TV cameras that New York needed to rebuild the twin towers, as a symbol of America’s defiance of terrorism. But can anyone imagine companies renting space in an identically-rebuilt World Trade Center?

The suburban office parks, with their lack of character and homogeneity, must look very attractive to corporate executives, not just in Manhattan, but everywhere. If carried to its logical extreme, this could trigger a large exodus of firms out of the central cities.

And what about residences? Already a large proportion of the new homes built in California are in gated communities. It’s easy to imagine the terrorist attacks adding to this trend, as Americans seek the false comfort of gates.

In a city designed primarily for safety, maybe all forms of high density living and working would be considered too dangerous. Centralized infrastructure, in the form of bridges and transmission lines, might seem too vulnerable. Settlements would be designed as a series of decentralized, independent parts, so that an attack on one piece wouldn’t bring down the others. And above all, the goal would be anonymity, a physical environment designed not to be noticed.

If all of these trends sound easy to imagine because we’ve already seen them, that’s exactly my point. We are vulnerable to the terrorists’ attack on our urban way of life precisely because it preys on fears we already have.

What Are Cities For?

Cities are inventions to bring people together and concentrate human energy. By allowing large numbers of people to congregate, cities allow likeminded people to find each other. Cities are, therefore, the birthplaces of new artistic movements and fringe political groups, for the same reasons that they foster business innovations.

From an environmental perspective, cities are the most efficient way to organize human settlement. On the most basic level, building “up” instead of “out” conserves land. Density is the only antidote to sprawl. Other benefits flow from this: clustering people and jobs and shops closely together makes it possible to walk or take transit. Density is the only antidote to car dependency.

From an economic perspective, cities are also efficient. When business people are walking to meetings— or the essential business lunch— they are, in fact, taking advantage of a fundamental economic principles economies of agglomeration. This idea speaks to the benefits a firm receives from being near to other firms—benefits such as the ability to share a labor pool, a creative interchange of ideas with people outside the firm, or the ability to outsource support functions to other companies. Face to face communication is still important for industries that depend on innovation. In this light, a mass exodus out of inner cities would weaken the country’s economy in the long run.

The urban form of a city expresses the kinds of activities that take place in it, and the values of the people who live in the city.

The chaotic jumble of building facades which distinguish American cities from their European counterparts express this country’s ideals concerning individuality and property ownership. Land owners build according to their own timing and their own tastes. Small parcels lead to small building footprints, giving form to an almost Jeffersonian notion of dispersed property ownership.

Public spaces—parks, plazas, and streets—express the ideal of a democratic public sphere, a place shared by people from different walks of life. At their best, our public spaces welcome different activities and different cultural groups, expressing values of tolerance and diversity.

Tall buildings express both the power of the occupants and the importance of the place. Whereas in medieval cities, the church spires were the tallest structures, in American cities today, it is skyscrapers with corporations in them. This displays a truth about our culture, that the pursuit of economic gain is highly valued. But tall buildings are more than symbols of capitalism; they are symbols of American urbanism itself. San Francisco’s Urban Design Plan says, “These buildings, as soaring towers in a white city, connote the power and prosperity of man’s modern achievements.”

And finally, cities as a whole can be seen as expressions of human sociability itself. The miracle of bringing so many people together is in itself a celebration of our mutual interdependence . The terrorist attack on New York must be seen as an attack on all of these complex values. It was an attack on our urban way of life.

Cities: A Work In Progress

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

We must not unintentionally do more damage to our country than the terrorists could do themselves. To me, this means we must not abandon the values of publicness, urbanity, and social interdependence—cities, in short.

America has been ambivalent about cities for a long time. They have been abandoned, under-funded, torn apart, ignored, misunderstood. But they are still works in progress. A fragile urban renaissance has been taking place in most of America’s big cities. People are moving back to many cities, after decades of declining population. Cities are experimenting with new forms of public transit that are suited to modern conditions. A new era of park design is being invented. We are finally learning how to live gracefully with the automobile. New forms of work are being invented to take the place of older forms that have left the city. The list of our unfinished work goes on and on.

This is not a defense of cities as they are, or our country as it is. It is a defense of our right to continue the endless work of perfecting our cities and our country. There probably are changes we should make to our cities in response to the terrorism. We will need to consider designing for greater redundancy in our infrastructure (not just BART, for example, but a second tube under the bay and extra capacity at ferry terminals). Or looking for opportunities to decentralize electrical generation (solar panels on rooftops, to reduce dependency on centralized power plants). We will need to revamp our emergency response system and our hospitals, and a long list of other public services. Some of these changes are things we should have done anyway. Others are forced on us now. At SPUR, we will continue our work promoting positive, practical change to bring about a livable, healthy urban future for San Francisco. The life of this city will go on, and we will be a part of it.SPUR logo


About the Authors: 

By Gabriel Metcalf

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