Monday, July 18, 2016

Learning the Right Lessons from Nice

Public plaza in Paris
I was particularly distressed by last week’s attack on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.  The sorrow was sharp because the attack occurred in a walkable urban place, a place described by CityLab as “an elegant Belle Époque version of the Atlantic City Boardwalk”, a place filled with folks in a celebratory mood. 

(Although as I write this it remains undetermined whether the attacker in Nice was affiliated with a terrorist organization, it seems moderately clear that he was a Muslim by birth and was likely using Muslim discontent as a justification for his actions, even if the specific motivation for the attack fell elsewhere.  These likely facts inform my comments below.)

Giving form to my thoughts on the attack provided an unexpected and uncomfortable reminder of recent history.

I recalled having written a post on a similar subject, but couldn’t remember which attack had triggered the post.  So I embarked on a search of my archives, trying to recall the target.  It wasn’t the concert hall or soccer stadium in Paris.  It wasn’t the Orlando night club.  It wasn’t the airports in either Istanbul or Brussels.  It wasn’t the classroom in Newtown or the conference room in San Bernardino.

I finally found it.  It was the Boston Marathon.  Those were far too many incidents of which to be reminded.

At least to my ear, my earlier article has stood up well.  I’d change a word or two, but not the underlying message.  However, there are further lessons that could have been gleaned from the crimes at the Boston Marathon and in Nice, lessons that I didn’t elucidate in the earlier post.  Those were omissions I’ll correct today.

One of the responses to the Nice attack, admittedly a lesser response but still heard, is that public places have become unsafe, that private homes, preferably far from the urban core, are the only truly secure places.

It’s a response that’s tone-deaf on at least two levels.

First, the oil needed to sustain the drivable suburban model, the model that created many of the remote private homes that some would now call our only refuges, has been a primary cause of Muslim unrest.  It’s true that the Israeli problem would have roiled the Middle East regardless and that the transition to modern democracy is never easy, but the perceptions that the West was only interested in the Middle East because of its oil and that many geopolitical decisions made by the West were driven by that interest were major destabilizing factors.

To suggest doubling down on the suburban model in response to tragic events triggered in part by the model is remarkably insensitive and unhelpful.

Second, one of the arguments used by extremists to radicalize moderates is that the Muslims will never be truly accepted into the Western world.

Assimilation is never easy.  We have many examples in the U.S. to prove that point.  But assimilation from behind the locked front doors of suburban fortresses is impossible.

To effectively combat the radical propaganda, we must rub shoulders on sidewalks, at restaurants, and in marketplaces with those who are different than us.

Taking a break from public places in the aftermath of Nice is understandable, but returning to those places after a short respite is essential if we’re to move past our era of fear.

I’ve never thought of visiting Nice, thinking myself more suited to wander the sidewalks of London, Paris, or Venice, but the events of last week may cause me to reconsider.  Hanging out on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, exchanging smiles with strangers, suddenly seems a desirable way to spend an afternoon.

Hopefully, many of you feel the same.

On a personal note, I’ll be traveling for my next seven publishing days.  Given that my plate of urbanist activities has recently become well filled, I considered taking a break from writing.  But I couldn’t bring myself to break a skein of three posts per week that now goes back more than four-and-a-half years.  So, I’ve written, or will soon write, the posts that will cover my absence.  They’ll be published automatically as the regular publishing days arrive.

Most of the posts will be shorter than my regular posts, which is probably a good thing.  I’ve been advised that the desirable length for a blog post is 650 to 1,000 words, long enough to convey a clear message but short enough not to require a major time commitment from the reader.   However, I struggle with the upper end, often writing beyond the 1,000-word limit.  Recently, I’ve been saving up some ideas that can be addressed in fewer words and will use them during my travels, bringing my long-term average slightly closer to the desired range.

Lastly, I may struggle to serve those of you who are accustomed to being alerted to my new posts by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or email notices.  With a travel computer that is wheezing its way to obsolescence, uncertain hotel wifi, and a full schedule of activities, I may not be able to hit all of my noticing goals.  But I’ll do the best I can, while also encouraging you to visit my primary site each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday even if no notices are received.

(And if you’d like to begin receiving email notices of new blog posts, please send me an email, although you may not get the full value of the request until after I return.)

In my next post, which will publish as I’m winging my way to my comfortably walkable paternal hometown in Ohio, I’ll ponder our failure to turn more quickly toward urbanism despite many signs that we should be doing so.

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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