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

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.

Photo: Michael Dudley

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

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.

Comments

Comments

Inappropriate for Planetizen

This highly political and specualtive commentary does not belong on the Planetizen site. Few if any connections were drawn to city planning issues. Though this is an important issue, this is not the correct forum for its discussion.

Security

Conversations about the effect, and the effectiveness, of responses to urban security are useful. This tripe does not stand up to the usual standards of Planetizen.

Higher-brow to avoid conflict, plz

I don't think this op-ed is tripe, but calling the one-party system we are stuck with on their politics of fear while the one party is still in power isn't a good way to avoid smear tactics.

The party in power, ideologically, marginalizes an already marginal profession by using marginalization rhetoric such as 'command and control' and 'socialist' in the same breath as 'central planning'.

Tone down the rhetoric and be clever and subtle about it. That is: be smarter about the rhetoric.

Best,

D

Michael Dudley's picture
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Avoiding conflict

Hi Dano --
Good point, thank you. I wrote this with a view to being sensitive about it, but being Canadian probably puts me at a disadvantage to navigating the rhetorical landscape with which you are more familiar. But your point is well-taken and good advice. Thanks -- MD

Michael Dudley's picture
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Security

Hi jcshepard
I fully agree with you that conversations about the effect, effectiveness and responses to urban security are useful -- that's why I engaged this issue. The American Planning Association has actually done some really positive work in mitigating some of the excesses I refer to re: ad-hoc responses with Jersey barriers and the like, by advocating long-standing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design approaches to creating vibrant urban areas, rather than desolate target-hardened ones. (See http://www.planning.org/policyguides/pdf/security.pdf). My concern is that planning for security in the context of a "war on terror" has problematic discursive dimensions which need to be re-examined. Thanks -- MD

And the connection between 9/11 and planning is...?

This editorial was really not very convincing about why "city planners must seek answers about 9/11". "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". Really? Commentators have been decrying the future viability of the American city probably since it's birth! Sure decentralization is continuing apace despite the best efforts of transit and new urbanism advocates, and the federal government is once again cutting funds for urban infrastructure and housing programs, but none of that is new. Decentralization of critical infrastructure has been an integral part of federal policy at least since the interstate highways system 50 years ago! What does any of this have to do with 9/11?

What I did find provocative about this Op-Ed (and problematic from an editorial point of view) was how the various 'alternative' theories about 9/11 were presented as factual: "the gathering protest and dissatisfaction over the officially-sanctioned narrative". I am all for critical evaluation of the events which occurred on 9/11, but I don't expect that we will ever fully know what happened on that day. I can say with 100% certainty that the analysis and conclusions of any group of experts is incomplete because the only people who can answer certain questions (such as who exactly were the hijackers) are dead! As for why the buildings collapsed the way they did, I think that it is more impressive that they were ever able to stand to begin with! With our blind faith in science and technology we tend to forget how many early tall-buildings collapsed under their own weight. Structural engineers (I didn't notice too many of them in the "scholars for 9/11 truth" membership list) can argue all they want about the design characteristics of the WTO and whether or not they should have been able to withstand a direct hit from a fuel-laden 747. The only way to test any of these theories is to try them out - and the fact is that the buildings collapsed. Should we rebuild the WTO exactly as it was and then crash another fuel-laden 747 into the buildings in the exact same spot (with the same number of passengers, just for good measure), just to prove whether or not they would have collapsed without some additional help? Clearly this is a specious argument.

The subject of mass media and propaganda are perhaps relevant to planning, as is "planning in a state of uncertainty (from terrorism)", but unfortunately this editorial did not make much of a case. It did get me motivated to write something though! My planning experience is from Israel which has had a long and sad history of urban terrorist attacks, and yet I cannot point to any specific practices which have evolved out of particular security needs. On the other hand, in the area of military operations, urban planning has certainly had an impact on recent strategy - see for example "Military Operations as Urban Planning" from Mute Magazine.

Michael Dudley's picture
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Re: Connections?

Hi Zvileve:
Your points are certainly well-taken, but I don't take the counter-arguments on 9/11 as factual, which I stress in the closing paragraphs. I don't support a particular interpretation because, as you say, any analysis will be incomplete. All I was saying was that since we have been basing our understanding on a *single* narrative which is now being questioned, that we need to re-examine our own assumptions as planners about this issue. Thanks -- MD

Michael Dudley's picture
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Inappropriate

Hi Louis -
I'm glad you agree that this is an important issue, and I won't argue that the piece is speculative and political. But my concern is that planning is inherently political, and as long as that context is so dominated by the "politics of fear," as well as being negatively affected by the consequences of ongoing warfare -- particularly a war that seems so bound up in the geopolitics of energy (energy consumption being directly tied to city planning issues) -- we should as planners be open to questioning these contexts. Thanks -- MD

Inappropriate

I am a city planner in the US who, until a few years ago, had a different career that put me much in contact with high level US leaders involved in military and political affairs, including in Central Asia.

I sympathize with the view that this essay by Michael Dudley touches on topics that, one would think, are most appropriately dealt with by, say, a reputable, neutral, engineering science body--or else by statesmen, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

On the other hand the questions raised by Mr. Dudley have never been mooted by the work of such bodies as these. Even the 9/11 Commissioners more or less admit that their work was a failure: the CIA refused them access to crucial data, the Pentagon lied to them. And the NIST study was not at all convincing as an explanation of why the buildings fell. It was essentially a lot of hand waving.

Given the above, I can think of far worse places for these questions to be raised than here. After all, it is of obvious relevance for us to find out why steel-frame skyscrapers engineered to withstand just this sort of event so spectacularly failed. And the other implications about the City's future raised in this article are all perfectly sound and even obvious. These questions may be unpleasant to contemplate, but so what? They are rational, and that is what matters.

Several leading professionals have said that no structural failure took place in the towers, that the buildings fell because they were professionally demolished. It is curious that several such professionals have been fired for raising their suspicions in a public way. If we are seeking an answer to a factual question, and it turns out that the answer is: 'you get fired if you ask that question,' well, speaking for myself, I find such a response intellectually unsatisfying and deeply troubling for political reasons. And cities are also--or so Plato thought--the very center of what is political.

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