Cities of Fear

Five years after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, new security measures are "sucking the soul" out of urban life.
August 24, 2006, 9am PDT | Michael Dudley
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Many of the security provisions in the built environment, ostensibly intended to protect Americans from terrorists, are undermining the very qualities that make urban life attractive.

"To appreciate how America has changed since 9/11, walk slowly through any major city. What you'll see dotting the landscape is the physical embodiment of fear. Security installations put up after the attacks continue to block public access and wrangle pedestrian traffic. Outside Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal, garish purple planters menace rush-hour pedestrian traffic. The gigantic planters have abandoned all horticultural ambition, many of them blooming with nothing more than trash and untilled dirt. 'French barriers,' steel-grate barricades meant for controlling crowds, ring many landmark sites -- including San Francisco's Transamerica Building -- like beefy bodyguards protecting starlets. Then there are the bollards, the cylindrical vehicle-blocking posts that are so pervasive you wonder if they've mastered asexual reproduction. In Washington, bollards surround everything. Not since Confederate Gen. Jubal Early attacked the city in 1864 has the nation's capital felt so under siege.

It's not just the barriers, it's also the buildings. Since 9/11, risk consultants working for police departments, federal agencies and insurance companies have wrested control over many new construction plans. 'There's a sense that security experts are acting as the associate architects on every project built today,' says Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New Yorker. Consultants tend to encourage architectural bulk at the expense of grace.

And this illustrates the main flaw in using architecture as a tool to fight terrorism -- we're building structures that may last forever but are frozen around our present-day fears. Architecture is an art form of anticipation, the challenge of building structures that will continue to be meaningful and useful in the decades and centuries to come. Truck bombs, on the other hand, are an acutely modern phenomenon."

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Published on Monday, August 21, 2006 in Salon.com
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