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Urban Life Will Change: Proposals for Rebuilding

September 19, 2001 by Administrator in September/December 2001

By Peter Marcuse

We are all of course trying to come to grips with what the events of September 11 mean, and will mean. It has been a terrible disaster, and the immediate loss of life is incredible.

But I think it will have a major long-term impact on life here, morally, economically, politically, on urban life, and all for the worse.The retribution/vengeance sentiment is overwhelming, and so far few are asking serious questions about causes. Our country hardly has clean hands when it comes to morality in its international conduct, but immoral acts such as terrorism look very different when you are its victims. Justice must be done, but more terrorism in response, more military security, more threats and blusters and shows of force, more calls of “war,” does not seem the right, the just, or even the effective, answer. And that all human life should be sacred, not just ours, hardly seems to be part of the immediate response.

There will also be major impacts on New York City in particular, and perhaps high-density big cities generally, in the direction of decentralization and further divisions and walls. I would guess a reduction in personal travel, more emphasis on electronic communication. Employment patterns will change; hyper-concentrations of jobs in service center-oriented office buildings (and both the high and the low-paying jobs associated with them) will shrink. The benefits of the agglomeration economies that have accounted for the strength of select financial centers will be counter-balanced by new political considerations, in which over-agglomeration is equated with danger. I suspect the global status of at least the central business district(s) of New York City but perhaps of other global cities will change, as multinational businesses change their spatial strategies in the search for security in more outlying areas. The focus will initially be within the same metropolitan regions (e.g. American Express, Lehman Brothers, others, renting–on long-term leases–spaces in Jersey City, Stamford, etc.), but over time will lead to wider dispersal to other regions or urban enclaves. The construction of glamorous, ever-higher trophy skyscrapers will stop; the towers in Kuala Lumpur and Frankfurt have already felt the threat, closing and evacuating the day after the World Trade Center collapse, and workers in the Empire State building are afraid to go up to their offices.

The social consequence will be the tendency to exacerbate polarization. Those able to find jobs and housing out of town will do so. Those unable to do so will remain behind. The difference between the two groups will be both income and race-related. The polarization will be both between city and suburb and within the city, with the focus of upper-income, disproportionately white households concentrating in more tightly controlled citadels and others more and more excluded and segregated, with sharper dividing lines between and among groups. Many of these tendencies pre-dated the World Trade Center attack; where they did, they will be substantially augmented.

“Security” will become the justification for measures that can threaten the core of social and political life, even though one conclusion that might be drawn from what has happened is that physical measures can never provide real security in the presence of deep social, including international, differences. Despite that, surveillance will increase and the uses of public space will be more tightly controlled (Mayor Giuliani has pioneered this with his restrictions on assemblies near City Hall, and attempts to limit the use of streets for parades, in the name of security). And we may expect the almost unlimited funding that the FBI and CIA are likely to receive to result in massive invasions of privacy; Senator Trent Lott has already called publicly for a reduction in the weight given civil liberties in the interests of security. “Public space” will become less public; free access and free use will be severely limited. By contrast, controlled spaces, such as malls, will increase their attraction.

What Can Be Done in New York City?

We do not need a “reconstruction czar.” We need a democratic, thoughtful, participatory, effective planning process. We need expedited action in certain areas, but not another Robert Moses or Baron Hausmann. What makes New York City great is not its efficiency, but its vibrant, often conflictual, but open and imaginative and innovative life.

Should the twin towers be rebuilt? Certainly not as they were (they couldn’t be marketed now anyway), nor with even more beefed up security. What should be done at the site should not reflect the arrogance of power, but rather the resilience of continued and vibrant life and also very clearly the sorrow of their history and the admission of human vulnerability that is one of its lessons. Waiting and thought and public discussion are in any event necessary; after a great loss it is wise to let time go by and immediate reactions settle. Planning for what’s to be done at the site should become a symbol of the very democratic processes that terrorism puts at risk.

· Avoid the hunker-down, fortress mentality, with police, check-points, metal detectors, and limited access everywhere. Risk management suggests that the costs, in terms of everyday life, business activities, and democratic conduct, must be taken into account in plans to avoid the dangers of terrorism. The quality of urban life is what brings people to cities and makes living there worthwhile; don’t kill it.

· The attack will cause a major shift in private market real estate prices in downtown Manhattan and in office clusters throughout the city. Watch developments closely, and if excess profits are being made, if speculation threatens stable business activities, consider forms of control, from commercial rent regulation to taxes on speculative real estate profits to planning policies channeling growth.

· Economic development policy will continue to be concerned with the needs of major transnational corporations, but attention must increase to the needs of smaller-scale businesses (local as well as nationally and internationally-oriented) that draw on the unique skills and talents of the city’s actual residents, including creativity, imagination, hard work, and social commitment. The weight of subsidies should go to such locally-based activities. They range from media-connected activities to specialty manufacturing, from medical research to printing, from education to community-based neighborhood economic development.

· Focus on improving education and economic conditions for the city’s lower-income residents, as the mainstay of its population. The choice is between further exclusion, or real and steady improvement and connection with the city’s mainstream economic, social, and cultural life. Exclusion, walls, and separation cannot provide security; acceptance and shared fortunes can. Changes in private market real estate developments may lead to a glut of expensive housing and a shortage of affordable housing; the housing goal needs to be new construction, but targeted to where the need is, not where the greatest profit can be made.

· Make it clear the city is a welcoming city for all peoples, that we do not confuse culture with cause, that we are and will remain an international city and a multicultural city. Brag about it.

· Cultural work—artistic, literary, inventive, scientific, media, research, educational—should be supported as the motor of the city’s economic and social life.

· Maintain mixes of uses and occupancy and building types, avoiding homogeneous concentrations of activities either at the high or low end of the economic ladder; avoid citadels and ghettos, and encourage contact across social and physical dividing lines in the city.

· Invest heavily in mass transit. The inevitable move of businesses from within to outside the city, with the attendant pressure for easier commuting, should be resisted, and balanced against the facility of moving about the city itself free of congestion, making staying in the city more efficient as well as providing environmental and tax benefits.

· Make security for travelers and visitors as hassle-free as possible. Consider decentralizing airport check-in and security clearance to convenient multiple locations, with direct secure transportation to flights. Make access to airports simple and clear, including direct access by mass transit. Make international visitors feel welcome once they have cleared security.

· Lobby for state and national legislation preventing fiscal competition among cities to attract businesses (a zero-sum game for cities, a transfer of wealth from public to private hands), akin perhaps to the European Union’s anti-subsidy rules. National, state, and local subsidies must serve social purposes, not simply replace or guarantee business profits.


Peter Marcuse is a Professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning at Columbia University in New York City.

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