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Planning for Smart Growth

In the mid-1990s, Maryland invented the term smart growth to describe its antisprawl state development plan. Within a few years, the term became one of the most, if not the most, commonly used planning terms in the United States. Closely allied with older ideas about growth management, smart growth was touted as the latest and most important answer to the problem of sprawl. With the U.S. population growing at somewhat more than 3 million people per year, and with most of that growth going into suburban areas, traffic congestion and other problems associated with sprawl were becoming daily more important to the public and to the planners who serve that public. Sprawl and smart growth are discussed in Chapter 14.

Planning and Public Safety

The need for safety was an important force behind the evolution of cities, since the city was a more defensible place than an isolated settlement in the countryside. Several centuries ago, technology began to change that picture. When the cannon first appeared in Europe in the late fifteenth century, city walls began to lose their protective value. In the twentieth century, the invention of the airplane converted cities from places of safety into huge targets, as World War II made unmistakably clear. In the early years after World War II, the existence of the Soviet Union armed with nuclear weapons made U.S. cities look like a major military liability. Many thought that the more densely urbanized we were, the more we invited nuclear attack and also the less able we would be to survive such an attack.

Urban planners and federal officials began to discuss the question of whether promoting a more scattered pattern of development would be in the national interest.8 However, this line of thought never gathered enough adherents to have a major effect on the U.S. pattern of development, though it may have affected the location of some defense facilities and the commercial and residential development associated with them. One reason that the United States did not adopt a policy of intentional dispersion was that very large numbers of people in this country believed that nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union simply would not occur. The key acronym was MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), and the key assumption was that the leadership of the Soviet Union, though reprehensible in many ways, was cautious and sane. As the Cold War waned and detente grew, concern with the security implications of the pattern of development gradually evaporated. In looking back, it is clear that those who placed their faith in MAD were correct.

The events of September 11, 2001 placed the relationship between the pattern of settlement and safety back on the planners' agenda. No terrorist attack could approach the destructiveness of a nuclear exchange, but on the other hand, such an attack had happened, and the destruction it caused was still massive. Unlike the leadership of the Soviet Union, the leadership of al Qaeda was not cautious, and to most Americans it also did not seem to be entirely sane. It was instantly clear to Americans that terrorism was not something that happened just in the Middle East or Sri Lanka or Kashmir. From 9/11 forward, Americans would have to contend with the possibility of terrorism at home.

Security concerns showed up in a variety of small ways in building design, site design, and the way that buildings and public spaces operated. Shatterproof glass and stronger construction appeared in some new, larger structures. Barriers that make it impossible to bring a motor vehicle close to a building have become commonplace in some urban areas. The new landscaping for the Washington Monument left the basic appearance of the monument site unaltered but surrounded the monument at some distance with walkways that have low walls sufficient to prevent a truck from getting close to the monument.

How much effect the threat of terrorism will have on urban form in the long term will largely depend on whether there are further terrorist acts in the United States. If Americans feel relatively safe from terrorism, the long-term effects of 9/11 on U.S. cities will be small. At the time of writing, concern with it is probably declining as we move further away from 9/11. For a while after 9/11 many people thought that there might be very little construction of extremely tall buildings, but that has clearly not been the case. If fear of terrorism does measurably affect urban form, the overall effect is likely to be a dispersing one. Measures to keep traffic and parked vehicles away from buildings and, generally, to achieve safety through distance will necessarily be easier to implement and less costly in low-density environs. Such measures will be hardest to implement in densely built-up areas like lower Manhattan or downtown Chicago.

Planning for Natural Disasters

Planners have long had some concerns about planning for natural disaster; for example, by minimizing risk to people and structures through flood plain zoning. However, concern has grown considerably during this century. Three items that pushed the matter to the forefront have been Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, the tsunami that disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant and which caused major losses of life and property in Japan in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy which hit the New York and New Jersey coast in 2012. Beyond that, many fear that rising atmospheric temperatures and the resulting rise in sea levels will increase the chance of major natural catastrophes in the future. The subject is discussed in more detail in Chapter 14.

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