By Michael Dudley
world has changed forever, and the city has become a place of danger. The mere
sound of an airplane overhead is now deeply unsettling. Where businesses once
found downtown to be an attractive location, now many of them are considering
relocating to distant suburban office parks. In response to widespread public
fear, city planners and architects are seeking ways to address the threat posed
by urban density.
Welcome to America, 1951.
The horrific mass murders of September 11th have resurrected the planning discourse
of the early atomic era, and we are once again debating defensive dispersal,
which at one time proposed that dispersed cities were less vulnerable to atomic
explosions. Between 1945 and the mid-1950's, many of America's city
planners and architects promoted low-density satellite towns, freeways and suburban
industrialization as measures for survival in the nuclear age.
From a planning perspective, what has been singular about the events of the
past month is how swiftly these arguments have reasserted themselves. Editorial
writers in the popular and professional presses have predicted the end of both
the "urban renaissance" and compact development, suggesting instead
that further decentralization and automobility will thwart terrorists. Few probably
recognize that these arguments are not new; but given the scale of the destruction
wrought on September 11th, it is understandable that defensive dispersal has
taken on new legitimacy. Yet fear, acted upon without reflection, will prevent
us from asking the right questions.
The Cold War version of defensive dispersal was a tacit argument for learning
to live with the bomb, rather than insisting upon its prohibition; its 21st
Century counterpart would have us adjust our cities to the threat of terrorism
without reference to its contexts. In both cases, there is a failure to recognize
The connections in this case come with an historical irony. Many of the plans
that were once promoted in the name of national security are now familiar elements
of the sprawling postwar urban pattern. Our cities now consume energy so spectacularly
that the United States has become economically and militarily committed to the
geopolitics of Persian Gulf oil. The instability of the region and the antipathies
that have arisen from America's involvement there hardly need summarizing,
but statements from al-Qaeda have been quite specific on the matter.
The irony is this: the dispersed city, which was once believed to provide a
measure of security in the atomic age, has made us extremely vulnerable in an
age of international terrorism.
Far from arguing against compact cities, the attacks on New York City and Washington
should be telling us precisely the opposite. More compact and walkable communities
can help us move towards a less petroleum-dependent economy, one in which America
may no longer feel compelled to involve itself in--and exacerbate--the
religious and ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. A new move to accelerate
low-density development, by contrast, will only heighten our need for Persian
Gulf oil (Alaskan stop-gap measures aside), and intensify the American diplomatic
and military involvement that is so obviously resented there.
Defensive dispersal planners both then and now are correct about one thing:
the shape of the city has national security implications -- just not in the
way these planners believe. While it would be both absurd and monstrous to lay
blame for the tragedy of September 11th on urban sprawl, it is not too much
to say that planning compact and self-sufficient cities could make significant
contributions towards a more stable, equitable--and therefore more secure--world.
Michael Dudley is a Senior Research
Associate and Librarian with the Institute of Urban Studies in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
His article, "Sprawl as Strategy: City Planners Face the Bomb" was
published in the September issue of The Journal of Planning Education and Research.