The subject of terrorism is an uncomfortable one for the anti-sprawl movement. At the "New Partners for Smart Growth" conference in New Orleans in 2003, someone in the audience was shouted down for asking about how 9/11 might affect cities. The question itself was seen as fear-mongering. At the same time, the American Planning Association issued guidelines aimed at marrying security and good design, to thwart measures that will encourage sprawl. Planners know that terrorism is bad for their product, and there has been no shortage of commentators to tout the benefits of dispersal. "We must go over . . . to the defensive. That means, first of all, don't bunch up," wrote historian Stephen Ambrose after 9/11. "It is no longer necessary to pack so many people and offices into such small space as lower Manhattan. They can be scattered in neighboring regions and states, where they can work just as efficiently and in far more security." An article in Wired magazine on how technology makes cities increasingly irrelevant declared simply, "Density kills." That mantra was picked up in an article published by the anti-smart growth Heartland Institute.
Richard Rosan, president of the Urban Land Institute, recognized the city-terrorism problem early on. "With this cloud of uncertainty hanging over America, there is a pressing need to make sure that the benefits of urban living continue to outweigh the disadvantages," he said a few weeks after the attacks. "The desire of people to be together is evident by the way they flock to cities seeking employment, entertainment, and enlightenment. They want to work and live in places that are vibrant and safe, not just tolerable." Terrorism might be the last straw for some, Rosan argued, but the focus should remain on the basic building blocks for cities, like schools and infrastructure. In the long run people will leave "if they are fed up with inadequate transit systems, inefficient planning, and a low quality of life."
Most liberals in the smart growth movement aren't war-on-terror hawks. But they should be. Virtually every security expert agrees that rooting out the extremists before they hit is the only way to protect the homeland, especially free-flowing and well-used transit systems, where the millions of passengers on subways and buses each day can't possibly be screened.
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