Friday, September 14, 2012

Urbanism in the Aftermath of 9/11

Successful urbanism, especially in towns where cars remain a viable option for many residents, requires a careful weaving of homes, businesses, public places, and transit.  The proximity of these urban features and the ease of non-car movement between them are crucial to making urbanism work.  New and different situations can test urbanism.

This subject comes to mind on the anniversary of 9/11 because of a post by Kaid Benfield on the changes to Washington, D.C. from post-9/11 security measures.  (The post was written a year ago, but remains valid today.)  Benfield argues that security measures have made the national capital a less commodious place for residents and visitors.  He doesn’t argue against the measures, only that they have harmed the urban fabric of the city.

Which leads to a question.  What if there had been a perceived threat to small towns in the aftermath of 9/11?  What if mayors from across the country had descended on Washington, D.C. demanding that the federal government fund security measures around their city halls and their downtowns?

I suspect that Washington would have complied.  I don’t know what the range of security measures might have been, but k-rail barriers around city halls and post offices seem likely.  Perhaps fewer access points into public buildings?  More alleys blocked off except for official vehicles?  More restrictions on public gatherings?  All seem possible.

And those security measures would have been a concern for small town urbanism because the urban fabric in a small town is more fragile than in cities.  Large-city residents are committed to living urban lifestyles and will adjust to inconveniences such as a newly locked door at city hall.  But town residents are still finding their way around urbanism.

Earlier this week, I was talking with a group about how a difficult street crossing can be enough for someone in a smaller city to decide not to walk, but to take his car instead.  And once he’s driving, he’ll want a place to park the car.  And once a garage is added, it changes downtown such that residences and businesses are further apart and less convenient for pedestrians.  So even more people drive.  It becomes a vicious circle in which urbanism can’t thrive.

If there had been a real threat, I wouldn’t have argued against k-rail barriers around city halls.  Nor am I arguing that a k-rail barrier around city hall would kill urbanism.  But it would be a small nick in the urban fabric and one never knows which nick will expand into a tear.

If small town anti-terrorism security becomes an issue in the future, I would ask that security measures be balanced against the urbanist model.  Because responding to a threat of terrorism from an unstable part of the world with security measures that cause more people to drive which causes oil prices to rise which sends more money to an unstable part of the world is a badly flawed feedback loop.

I don’t know how we would have responded eleven years ago if 9/11 had included a threat on small towns.  But I consider it a worthy question because it causes us to think about how we view our towns and how we make decisions affecting them. 

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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