Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Urbanism and Terrorism

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this week, many are staying away from public places.  I understand their fear.  Anthony Flint of Atlantic Cities writes about how the pride that Bostonians felt on Patriots Day was turned upside down, casting a pall that won’t soon dissipate.

But if we continue to stay away from public places, we’ve missed the point.  (Let’s retire the over-used phrase “the terrorists have won.”)  Even though urbanism may offer convenient targets for terrorists, it also creates conditions in which terrorism struggles to survive.

At this writing, we don’t know what forces were behind the bombings.  But most of us we can tick off a list of likely suspects, some foreign and some domestic.  And without fail, those forces of evil have roots in secrecy and isolation.

Public squares and plazas aren’t immune from political thinking, but it’s in those places that movements are begun to improve freedom and the lot of the common man.  Think of the Arab Spring or Tiananmen Square.  It’s in dark alleys, along shadowy halls of totalitarianism, or behind impenetrable national walls of censorship that the good instincts of the public place are subverted into terrorism.

So if you must, stay out of public places for the next few days.  A recovery time is understandable.  But then please return with full hearts to the sidewalks, the parks, and the squares.  And may your joyful greetings to friends serve as messages to terrorists that their schemes will eventually come to naught.  And while you’re chatting with your friends, you might want to promote the development of more urbanist places.

This isn’t meant to imply that urbanism is the sole weapon needed to push back against terrorism.  Much like wider sidewalks aren’t sufficient to sustain urbanism, but is only one tool among many, urbanism isn’t the sole tool needed to fight terrorism.  But it’s in the toolbox and can be surprisingly effective.

Just because we choose to stay in public places doesn’t mean we need to be stupid about the risks.  Amanda Erickson of Atlantic Cities writes about the evolving thinking on trash cans and how new design approaches can reduce of the risks of explosives placed in trash receptacles.

Lastly, technology is increasing the difficulty of getting away with an urban attack.  Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities writes that the Boston police are looking for photos and videos from the people clustered near the finish line, speculating that the perpetrators were likely caught amidst the many images being collected.

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


  1. I say, let's all join the Boston Marathon next year! I believe the 118th running of this historic institution will be on April 21, 2014. Boston is an exciting, vibrant city — great for walkability and urbanism — and the marathon will be especially meaningful next year.

    In Boston we care about three things:
    Politics, sports and revenge.
    And the revenge will be
    the laughter of our children.

    —Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe
    on Charlie Rose, PBS April 16, 2013

    1. Barry, great quote. Thanks for sharing.