Low Densities Are No Answer To The Threat Of Terrorism

The sprawling 1950's postwar urban pattern, once believed to provide a measure of security in the atomic age, has made us extremely vulnerable in an age of international terrorism.
October 23, 2001, 12am PDT | Michael Dudley
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By Michael Dudley

Michael DudleyThe 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 deeper connections.

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.

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