Will 9/11 Continue to Take a Toll on America's Cities?

Article excerpt

What are the implications for planning and policing America's cities in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 ("September 11" or "9/11") and Oklahoma City? These events represent terrible tragedies, and planning and the other disciplines represented at the Fordham Urban Law Journal's 2005 Symposium must contribute to preventing future terrorist acts and minimizing the human and economic costs of such acts if they do occur. It is equally important, however, to avoid imposing possibly greater costs, even inadvertently, in the name of fighting terrorism. Unintended but serious collateral damage to American society from antiterrorism policies, such as the potential threats to civil liberties, the benefits of international tourism, and the intellectual and economic contributions of foreign students and scholars, is already the subject of considerable debate.

If not carefully thought through, policies that modify the way in which we plan for growth and change in America's cities in order to fight terrorism may seriously undermine these cities' ability to compete as places to live, work, and play. In the process of combating terrorism, these measures may undermine the general goals of urban planning, such as enhancing quality of life and economic opportunity for tens of millions of Americans, counteracting the negative environmental and public health impacts of sprawl, promoting community and diversity in a society increasingly marked by economic and racial fragmentation, and creating buildings and public spaces that convey the values of a free and open society.

A number of antiterrorism measures enhance the quality and character of urban life, or at least leave it undamaged. Well-conceived urban design initiatives that add trees, fountains, benches, and well-designed bollards to protect buildings are enhancing Washington, D.C., and other cities. Requirements that buildings be built to better withstand bomb blasts and offer greater protection to inhabitants in the event of fire or potential collapse are making America's buildings safer in the face of a wide range of potential disasters. New technologies that sense threats to air and water quality improve public health.

Nevertheless, a different set of antiterrorism measures represents a serious challenge at a time of potentially historic economic and social regeneration for America's cities. Buildings and spaces that promote the free exchange of ideas and shared experiences provide the bedrock of urban life and play a central role in cities' newfound ability to compete for jobs, housing, and other types of investment. Yet these urban qualities have been among the first casualties across the United States of the post-9/11 quest for security that has taken the form of blank walls and locked doors along public streets; large activity-free perimeters around public buildings; jobs transferred out of downtowns to remote locations; parking forced from beneath public buildings into garages that line public streets with cars instead of people; and similar measures taken without regard to the full range of values that should shape America's cities.

A RECENT HISTORY OF SINGLE-MINDED URBAN INITIATIVES

Since World War II, single-purpose initiatives to reshape urban environments, each a response to one apparently overriding issue, have repeatedly undermined the character and quality of American communities. One striking example of a blinkered solution that produced a generation of buildings hostile to basic human and community values was the 1973 oil embargo, which created a profound sense of vulnerability in America. A colleague of mine recalls, without fondness, her quaint Connecticut community's response to the embargo: deciding, like hundreds of other communities, to banish windows from new schools. (1) To a society unwaveringly focused on conserving energy, that windowless school represented patriotism and civic responsibility.

In retrospect, it also symbolized an aberration, a sense that energy conservation required doing away with the qualities that make schools nurturing places for learning. …