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After the Fall: Why City Planners Must Seek Answers About 9/11

March 6, 2006, 7am PST | Michael Dudley
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The events of 9/11 have had a dramatic effect on our cities, from authorities surrounding hundreds of public buildings with Jersey barriers, to continued suburbanization away from more "threatened" downtowns. Yet as the chorus of those questioning the assumptions of 9/11 grows, Michael Dudley argues that planners too must examine the attacks that so profoundly impacted their profession.

 Michael Dudley

As any long-time reader will be aware, this website has over the past four years tracked in great detail the discourse concerning the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. A search through the archives reveals how our collective horror gave way to speculation over the future of skyscrapers in particular and cities in general, which in turn sparked discussion of pragmatic design interventions to public buildings and, of course, debate over the relentlessly controversial WTC redevelopment. I myself contributed an op-ed on the subject in October of that year.1

What Planetizen readers have not seen on this website is the gathering protest and dissatisfaction over the officially-sanctioned narrative of the 9/11 events. Almost since the ashes settled on Manhattan, a growing chorus of individuals and groups (including some families of 9/11 victims) have been voicing their disbelief over the accepted explanations for the attacks -- almost all of which are contradicted by video and photographic evidence, physical evidence, the testimony of witnesses, the laws of physics, and general common sense. These groups are demanding better answers than those provided by the Keane Commission, which Harper's Magazine has called a "whitewash".2

This past month, demands for a new investigation were joined by an interdisciplinary group of academics and other experts known as "Scholars for 9/11 Truth",3 who "are convinced [their] research proves the current administration has been dishonest about what happened in New York and Washington, D.C." Among other revelations, their initial news release highlights the scientific impossibility of one of the most central facts of the 9/11 catastrophe -- the official explanation for the collapse of the WTC towers -- suggesting that the collapses appear to have been the result of deliberate demolition.4

That such a central fact as the cause of the WTC collapses can be so deeply in doubt is frankly astonishing, and anyone who examines the findings of the Scholars for 9/11 Truth with an open mind must find them extremely disturbing. I believe this skepticism must also give us as planners pause.

Why? Because American society has been so deeply enculturated by the horror of September 11th and its subsequent politicization that it has put the future viability of the American city in doubt.

Hundreds of public buildings have been surrounded with Jersey barriers and other measures defending against truck bombs, while new buildings are assigned grotesquely large setbacks. Underground parking is giving way to space-gobbling surface lots and security cameras are everywhere. Many government offices and private firms have dispersed their facilities away from denser areas as part of "national security sprawl".5 Manhattan's proposed Freedom Tower has of course gone through repeated iterations, the last of which imposed a 200-foot tall barrier to truck bombs that has been decried as an "alienating monument to surrender".6 Not only are these security measures aesthetically questionable, contributing to a "siege mentality",7 but all have been undertaken based on a set of unquestioned and sacrosanct assumptions about the events of 9/11 -- assumptions that may now be crumbling. If the original justification for all of these design interventions is called into doubt, isn't it the duty of America's planners to ask why?

Face it or not -- and however well-intentioned its practitioners may be -- the "secure city" project has been an integral part of America's larger Homeland Security efforts and, by extension, its increasingly problematic (and endless) "war on terror".8 That this war also appears to many observers to be a cynically lethal way of securing access to energy supplies in an era of "peak oil"9 adds an even more urgent dimension to our need as planners to develop a new understanding about the events of 9/11.

Significantly, the exigencies of the "war on terror" have also involved a massive transfer of wealth and resources away from the needs of cities in the United States. We have already seen the tragic effects of this misallocation in the partial defunding of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) -- in order to divert the money to the war in Iraq -- which may have contributed to the destruction of New Orleans.10 The huge cost of rebuilding after last year's hurricanes aside, the United States is going to need to spend $1.6 trillion to repair its sagging infrastructure over the next 5 years.11 In light of the recent calculations that the war in Iraq will cost as much as $2 trillion,12 we should be asking -- where will this money come from? The answer may be found in President Bush's proposed budget for 2007, which slashes a host of domestic programs (including $1 billion from Community Development Block Grants13) so that the Pentagon can secure $439.3 billion -- excluding costs associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- an astonishing 45% increase over defense spending when Bush took office in 2001.14 If endless war is going to be starving America's cities of the resources they need, don't planners have a duty to question the legitimacy of that war?

The American city as a container of social interaction, exchange, communality, and discourse can only be as healthy as the national polity. Yet the accepted 9/11 narrative has driven everything that America has become in the past four years: divided, fearful, and willing to gradually acquiesce to a radical erosion of its traditions of democracy at home -- an erosion that must reach into the target-hardened public spaces and now apparently wiretapped homes of its cities. We must also recognize that the American city can only be as secure as its counterparts around the world, and as long as the U.S. is engaged in resented military actions abroad (all justified by the official 9/11 narrative), America -- and its cities -- will probably be the target of terrorists. If America's cities are to be thus endangered and have their civility degraded, don't planners have a responsibility to ask why?

Finally, the wars supposedly justified by 9-11 have resulted in the widespread destruction of cities and basic infrastructure in the Middle East and Central Asia (witness the pitiless razing of Fallujah15). Whatever the justification, the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is internationally proscribed by the laws of war; yet even the justification being touted is in doubt. Surely there is a professional imperative here to which we must respond.

Space does not allow me to make a case why the doubts about 9/11 are as deep and extensive as they are. I also certainly don't claim to understand myself what happened on that tragic and terrible day; indeed, some of the claims and counterclaims of 9/11 skeptics are controversial even among those who make them. But I would urge Planetizen readers to consider that the very multiplicity of uncertainties surrounding the attacks makes the need to re-examine their history even more essential.

We must reinvigorate the difficult dialogue begun on this website more than four years ago. If America's city planners are to contribute positively to the urban future in the 9/11 era (I hesitate to call it "post-") then they must actively search out for themselves what really happened on 9/11 -- and decide for themselves what that means for America's cities.

Michael Dudley is a Research Associate and Librarian with the Institute of Urban Studies (IUS) at the University of Winnipeg, and an adjunct faculty member of the City Planning program at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba. He maintains a blog on behalf of IUS at http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ius/.

1 Dudley, M. (2001). "Low densities are no answer to the threat of terrorism". Planetizen, October 22nd 2001. Available at http://www.planetizen.com/node/30. See Planetizen's coverage of the Impact of 9/11 on our Cities at http://www.planetizen.com/node/17671. For an excellent summary of this discourse, see Nasr, J. (2003). "Planning histories, urban futures, and the World Trade Center attack". Journal of Planning History 2 (3), pp. 195-211.

2 DeMott, B. (2004). "Whitewash as public service: How the 9/11 Commission Report defrauds the nation". Harpers Magazine, October. Available at: www.harpers.org/WhitewashAsPublicService.html. For more examples, see www.unansweredquestions.org.

3 See Scholars for 9/11 Truth. (2006). "Experts claim official 9/11 story is a hoax." Available at www.scholarsfor911truth.org/PressRelease30Jan2006.html.

4 Jones, S. (2006, Forthcoming). "Why indeed did the WTC Buildings collapse?" Research in Political Economy 23, Special issue: The Hidden History of 9-11 2001, P. Zarembka, (Ed). See also September 11 Revisited, available at 911revisited.infad.net/video.html.

5 Natsios, D. (2005). "National security sprawl". In D. G. Shane & B. McGrath (Eds.)Sensing the 21st Century City: The net city close-up and remote. New York: Wiley.

6 Speck, J. (2005). "The Freedom Tower: An alienating monument to surrender". Metropolismag.com. Available at www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=1489.

7 Rybczynski, W. (2005). "I came, Eyesore, I Conquered: Perimeter security is ugly and may not keep us safe". Slate, August 24th 2005. Available at www.slate.com/id/2124886/?nav=navoa.

8 Dudley, M. (2005). "Revisiting Cold War ideology in the secure city: Towards a political economy of urbicide." Paper presented at Urbicide: The Killing of Cities? An international and interdisciplinary academic workshop, 24-25th November 2005. Sponsored by the Politics-State-Space research group, Department of Geography, Durham University, U.K. and P-CON: The Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Colgate University, U.S.A. Also see "Urbicide: The Killing of Cities" (2006). Conference website available at www.geography.dur.ac.uk/conf/urbicideworkshop/Home/tabid/836/Default.aspx

9 Ruppert, M. (2004).Crossing the Rubicon: The decline of the American empire at the end of the age of oil. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.

10 Bunch, W. "Did New Orleans catastrophe have to happen? 'Times-Picayune' had repeatedly raised federal spending issues." 2005. Editor & Publisher, August 30th 2005. Available at (subscription): www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001051313

11 Tucker, P. (2006). "Beyond sprawl: Rethinking humanity's habitats". The Futurist, January-February. Available at www.wfs.org/futarticlejf06.htm

12 Stiglitz, J. (2006). "Cost of war in Iraq". Available at (PDF) www2.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/jstiglitz/Cost_of_War_in_Iraq.pdf

13 Wallace, M. (2006). "President's Budget Slashes CDBG Program". Nation's Cities Weekly, February 13th 2006. Available at www.nlc.org/Newsroom/nation_s_cities_weekly/weekly_ncw/2006/02/13/8244.cfm.

14 Goldstein, A. (2006). "Congress' election-year headache: Politicians must tackle a budget proposal that pares down popular domestic programs". The Detroit News, February 7th 2006. Available at http://detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060207/POLITICS/602070393/1022.

15 Bôle-Richard, M. (2005). "Falluja residents testify to the destruction of their city". Truthout. Available at http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/38/8821.

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