Our Relationship with the Built Environment in the Aftermath of Terrorist Attacks

A free society should embrace tolerance and diversity

The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center leaves a gaping void in the New York skyline and in the soul of America. Millions of Americans witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers on live television, recognizing it as a personal, visceral threat to our way of life, our national identity, and our sense of being.

The concrete, smoke, and grief-laden gusts that choked downtown Manhattan didn't stop in New York. They swept through the streets of Main Street U.S.A. and across the oceans to the rest of the world. We have heard numerous personal accounts of the tremendous sense of loss that people worldwide have felt when viewing the permanently altered Manhattan skyline, indicating that, in a larger sense, the terrorist attacks may be producing subtle changes in our relationship with the built environment.

America's diversity and tolerance allows us to embrace different lifestyles, and our built environment reflects that diversity. People across the country watched the events of September 11th unfold from a variety of locations — city apartments, suburban ranch houses and office parks, rural farms — but all felt the tragedy as if someone had attacked their own city hall, church, or local business. We knew instinctively that thousands of people's lives — lives like ours and our neighbors — were destroyed when the towers fell and that two potent symbols of our humanity had crumbled.

Looking beyond the steel and concrete that formed them, the Twin Towers symbolized the eternal human aspiration to defy gravity, to soar above the earth that grounds us. This aspiration brings to mind some of mankind's most notable achievements — the Great Pyramids of Giza, Orville Wright's flight over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mount Everest, and the Apollo missions that gave us the first glimpses of the Earth from space.

These historical examples transformed the psyches of entire societies, just as Americans came to see the construction of buildings like the Empire State Building, Sears Tower, and World Trade Center as monuments to the economic and political freedoms we champion.

The intrinsic human need to transcend ourselves is part and parcel of the human condition and is perhaps nowhere better reflected than in the built environments we have created for ourselves to inhabit. Our modern American cities and their skyscrapers reach upward towards the skies while our suburban communities extend outward to the rural countryside. Together, they form a continuum within which we and our economies exist and evolve.

Yet, there is a tension between these two seemingly complimentary expressions of our human nature that is reflected in long-standing debates over the form that our built environments should take. For example, New Urbanists argue that our future should move towards higher density, multi-functional urban environments. Others argue that the aggregation of people in dense urban environments is unhealthy, unsustainable and is counter to the preferences of people who seek space, privacy, and room to breathe.

Not surprisingly, architects, urban planners, and theorists have begun to re-evaluate the future of our urban environments in the wake of September 11 terrorist attacks.

In a recent commentary on Planetizen.com, James Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros proclaim that "the age of skyscrapers is at an end" and that the tragic event in New York "exposes an underlying malaise with the built environment." They argue that skyscrapers "deform the quality, the function, and the long-term health of urbanism—by overloading the infrastructure and the public realm of the streets that contain them." In short, they feel that tall buildings are killing our cities. Kunstler and Salingaros advocate a move towards urban downsizing through applying some of the principles of the New Urbanism movement — the development of smaller mixed-use and human-scaled buildings designed to achieve a more organic urban form that promotes active and vibrant streetscapes.

Others would counter that skyscrapers serve a functional purpose and are simply a logical response to market forces operating in urban areas with little vacant land available for new development. Also, many residents of our most densely populated urban areas would certainly take exception to the suggestion that tall buildings have destructive effects on the urban quality of life and sense of community. Cities like New York and Chicago have experienced a resurgence over the last decade, and their skyscrapers are fundamentally interwoven into the urban fabric.

Emphasizing this point, Martin Zogran of the Harvard Graduate School of Design commented in the Boston Globe that major centers of economic activity require a centralization of people in one place, and tall residential buildings have their own sense of "vertical community, just not with front porches and picket fences."

Still others argue that we may see an increased trend towards economic decentralization in the aftermath of the attacks, particularly given the flexibility now offered to businesses and individuals by the Internet and state-of-the-art telecommunications technology. Joel Kotkin, writing for Reis.com, argued that the World Trade Center attack may "bring a new sense of dread about urban locations," and that "a dispersion of operations in city centers as well as suburban locales may be seen as critical both to corporate and individual security."

American Express and Lehman Brothers, for example, are reportedly relocating from lower Manhattan to locations in New Jersey, and there are indications that many other displaced World Trade Center tenants are also looking for long-term deals on office space outside the city in the tri-state area. According to one New York real estate representative, "[these companies] are going to assess whether having too much concentration in a single location can be compromised by a single event."

Yet, the complex nature of our modern world dictates that we can never guarantee the safety and security of our lives and livelihoods, regardless of whether we opt in the future to build upward, outward or some hybrid in between. New York-based architect Frank Duffy makes this point in a recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian:

    "Of course it's not the end of the skyscraper. You can't design an indestructible building, much less an indestructible city. Even if you did away with high-rise buildings and dispersed the city and knitted it together with the Internet, its electronic intelligence, its money-making ability, could be destroyed by computer viruses. You don't need to kill people to undermine an economy."

The recognition that there is no assurance of safety is perhaps the most salient and tangible way in which we as a society will reassess our relationship with the built environment as a result of the terrorist attack. We will be more aware of our conspicuousness when we ride elevators, travel through airports, or huddle en masse in stadiums for concerts and sporting events. We'll pay more attention to emergency evacuation routes when we go to work or stay in hotels. We will also likely demand a greater attention to safety when buildings are constructed or renovated, just as building codes and design standards were modified in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and nationally after California's Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes.

Yet, in a more subtle way, we may increasingly come to see our urban environments as a true reflection of ourselves and our humanity. Many of us have expressed the surreal feeling of detachment we felt watching the events in New York and Washington unfold on the morning of September 11—our closest point of reference being the now-too-real computer-generated destruction and mayhem so common in summer blockbuster movies. For many, the reality of the moment only started to sink in when we began to comprehend the enormity of human loss and the valiant efforts of police, firefighters, and rescuers.

As we begin to re-evaluate the issue of future urban forms, the most important thing we need to recognize is that a free society should embrace tolerance and diversity. In urban design, this means recognizing the benefits and unique attributes of a variety of built-environments. Citizens and policy makers should resist the temptation to make a value judgment regarding one type of urban form or another because there is simply no one-size-fits-all form that can most efficiently or safely accommodate our dynamic lifestyles and economic needs.

Our continued progress as a society demands a freedom to choose the kinds of communities that we want to live in. All Americans — be they urbanites, suburbanites, and rural dwellers — should have an equal opportunity to live and work in the kinds of places best suited to their needs and wants. None should feel immune from the types of attacks witnessed in New York and Washington, but all can take comfort in the sense of community unique to their own living environment. It is this comfort that will help them to move on after such a tragic event.

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation


References

Charles V. Bagli and Leslie Eaton, "Seeking New Space, Companies Search Far From Wall St." The New York Times, September 14, 2001.

Anthony Flint, "Urban Downscaling Urged" Boston Globe, September 19, 2001.

Jonathan Glancey, "Reaching for the sky," The Guardian, September 15, 2001.

Joel Kotkin, "Urban Futures," Reis.com. September 14, 2001.

James Howard Kunstler and Nikos A. Salingaros, "The End of Tall Buildings," Planetizen.com, September 17, 2001

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform





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