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Manhattan Urbanism, 9/11, and the "Security-Silo"


Brent Toderian | September 13, 2011, 10am PDT
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Watching the many ceremonies and documentaries on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, like many people I've been recalling where I was, and how it affected me when I watched the twin towers come down so horribly on TV. I had just left my previous life in Ontario, including a 10 year consulting career, to move to Calgary Alberta and try municipal planning. I had also just been in New York only months before for the 2001 CNU Congress, a trip that had included my first visit to the towers. I sought them out specifically, having been for many years curious about them, and the nature of their long-controversial urbanism. Watching them smoke, then fall, only a few months later, was beyond surreal - even as a Canadian (knowing that I couldn't ever fully understand what Americans were feeling at that moment), I knew that it would change everything, and indeed it did. 

In the weeks and months after, I found myself hoping that it wouldn't change things in one very important way relating to my passion for city-building - I dearly hoped it wouldn't lead to the rise of the security consultant as "super urban designer." 

Cities have long been about a careful balance between liberty and security. Cities often developed to secure entry-points to important harbours, and indeed to secure and protect colonies from potential or real enemies. Medieval cities were frequently walled to secure the people and prosperity within, while also striving to allow a level of free-flow of commerce and public life. It may in fact be true that at least in North America, the last 75 years or so have been an anomaly in this regard, or perhaps more accurately a change, where cities have become wide open, with instead our national borders being "closed" to various degrees. 

In modern city-building, powerful specialties or "silos" are frequently the bane of good holistic urbanism.  Often the safety-based silo's can be the toughest to work with - after all, it's hard to refute the single-minded "expert" saying that "if you don't do this, people will die". Urbanists are familiar with working within such contexts with our colleagues in the fire and police departments, and even with transportation departments when it came to traffic accident statistics and such. The art of great city-building has been to integrate such safety concerns into designs that achieve many things, to achieve security within great places that are successful in many ways. Often the security consultant's perspective is that "it shouldn't just BE secure, it must LOOK completely secure, impregnable even" - that kind of approach, though, makes it tough to achieve other things like the facilitation of public vibrancy. Places that try to be totally safe tend to lack life, and usually fail as people-places. After 9/11 such discussions got even harder, even here in Canada, especially when it came to federal or provincial buildings such as courthouses or convention centres. Holistic urban solutions, in many cases, became even more challenging to achieve, at least for a while.  

In 2007, I found myself again in Manhattan, now as Vancouver's chief planner at the invitation of the Forum for Urban Design, along with the chief planners/designers for New York, London, Singapore, Boston and Toronto. We had been invited to publicly discuss good urbanism with a focus on Lower Manhattan. Many of us noted that in many ways, New York was the North American model for vibrant civic life through good urbanism. It was the inspiration for so many other cities, citing the great urban projects and transformations like Bryant Park and Paley Park, the groundbreaking work of William Holly Whyte and the Project for Public Spaces, and the civic understanding and influence of Jane Jacobs. Among the many topics this rare assembly of urbanists passionately discussed and debated (described in detail in my post from 2007 HERE) was the concern over this security silo - I summarized the discussion at the time like this: 

"On Security as a Design Driver": 

Good urbanism is about avoiding silo (or single issue) thinking, and several of us lamented the rise of security in Lower Manhattan as a "super-silo". This has led to bunker design that turns its back to the public realm in the name of safety. Although all could understand the impulse toward such thinking in the shadow of such a devastating attack on 9/11, most of us called for design creativity in addressing security within a more holistic design program, with clever solutions that achieve many goals without sacrificing "public-ness". The irony of a Freedom Tower suggesting through its design that freedom perhaps is gained only by putting up walls, was not lost on several of us."

I've since only been to New York a few times, and its been a few years since the last trip - so I'm definitely not an expert on how things have been progressing. Of course the Ground Zero redevelopment has had its well-documented challenges. I've watched from afar with great interest, and I've wondered if my security-silo concerns for Lower Manhattan are still warranted, as it starts to make progress in finding its new way. I'd love to hear the thoughts of those who are closer to it, on how its doing in this sense. 

Meanwhile, other parts of Manhattan seem to be in many ways having a remarkable renaissance of public life, making New York even more inspirational. This is seen in examples like the pedestrianization of Times Square, the new bike lanes, and the remarkable transformation of the High Line. All the while, the city still deals with the understandable apprehension that anniversaries like this weekend can bring.

In a few weeks I'll be back in NY, a city I truly love, for an event that will forever cement the city and its public realm in my mind as a place of joy rather than tragedy - my fiancé, also a city planner, and I will be getting married there in a small ceremony with a few close friends, somewhere out in the public realm. In picking the location, we had so many options, illustrating how rich the city is with public life and great places. 

In the battle between fear and the power of that security super-silo, against public life, holistic urbanism and the joy of a great city, I'm very glad that life seems to be winning in New York.


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