Friday, May 17, 2013

Security vs. urbanity?

Three summers ago my family went on an eastern vacation. We spent a day in New York City; this is Robbie's photo of the World Trade Center site.

Now, as the new World Trade Center progresses--it may not be finished until 2019--questions are arising as to how it will be connected to its surrounding neighborhood. A draft environmental impact statement this week reveals, for the first time publicly, Police Department plans for security. And they are elaborate, including guard booths and various barriers to vehicular and sidewalk traffic. Here's a rough map, from The New York Times website:

Here's what they mean by a sally port, a vehicle barrier controlled by the police from the booth:

A bollard is a vertical post that mainly controls vehicles. Here's one from the Global Industrial website, which you can buy for $51.95:

I guess their impact on pedestrians would depend on how many there were on a given stretch of sidewalk.

The conundrum New York faces is clear. On the one hand, the new World Trade Center is an obvious target for another terror attack, and if my company is going to locate there we are going to be as sure as we can that we are not going to be blown up. And no one, particularly first responders such as police, who was in any way connected to the 2001 attacks and their dreadful aftermath wants to risk a repeat of that.

On the other hand, planners, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had hoped that the new WTC would be integrated into the neighborhood so that there would be flows and connections and all the things that the New Urbanists call "urbanity," with Fulton and Greenwich Streets reopened for the first time since the first World Trade Center was constructed in 1970. Said Bloomberg in 2002: We can imagine innovative ways to manage streets and traffic downtown, reinforcing the feeling that this is one place. Getting around easily means community, and that's what we're trying to create. I'm not aware Mayor Bloomberg has weighed in on this latest proposal, but the Times article includes vehement complaints from the former director of the city's Office of Operations, the former vice president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former chair and the former director of planning and land use for Community Board 1.

The security vs. community conundrum is not unique to New York City. One of the motivations behind suburban development has been the desire of families to live in more secure environments; of course that brings sprawl and all its attendant costs, but particularly loss of community. But in a city which has suffered a deadly attack unique in our recent history, the conundrum surely has more immediate resonance.

A side controversy has to do with the impact on urbanity of restricting vehicular traffic. The New Urbanists, following Jane Jacobs, base everything they want on the presence of diverse lots of pedestrians throughout the day. Yet despite some European success in creating auto-free downtowns, in America most experiments have been disastrous. Champaign, Illinois had virtually killed its downtown by the time I moved there in 1982, and I remember State Street in Chicago was closed to vehicles for awhile. In New York, argues former community board chair Julie Menin, vehicle restrictions around the Stock Exchange and police headquarters have killed local businesses. On the other hand, the deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism, Richard C. Daddario, argues: The campus security plan will not isolate the World Trade Center from the Lower Manhattan community.... The argument... ignores the fact that people largely experience the city on foot and on bikes.

P.S. 18 June 2013: From designer Jeff Speck's book Walkable City, page 98: These car-free successes provide a powerful lesson that unfortunately does not apply to most American cities. It is a mistake to think that similar designs will produce similar results in vastly dissimilar places. Face it: you aren't Copenhagen, where cyclists outnumber motorists. You aren't New York, where pedestrian congestion can actually make it impossible to walk south along Seventh Avenue near Penn Station at 9:00 a.m. Unless you have similar residential and pedestrian density and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic--a rarity--to consign a commercial area to pedestrians only, in America, is to condemn it to death. So, the design described above might work for New York City, but don't try it at home!


  1. State Street in Madison is vehicle-restricted, but it doesn't seem to have hurt. That there are literally thousands of students living on or within a couple of blocks probably doesn't hurt. Of course, I'd think that would be true of Champaign too, though I don't know where U of I is located in relation to the downtown area they tried to make auto-free.

    State Street also has the Capitol anchoring one end, which serves both as a major employment center and a tourist draw, and is open to and heavily served by city buses. But I will say that State Street is about the only truly successful.pedestrian mall I've ever personally encountered.

    As far as the WTC site is concerned, it might work. I does have a lot of the same characteristics as Madison's State Street: a large population living within easy walking distance; a major employment anchor; a tourist draw; and good public transit. That said, the restrictions on vehicular access strike me as a little odd; if the WTC site needed that kind of security against street vehicles, why weren't they put in place following the vehicular attack on the original WTC in 1993?

  2. Good comment, John. Iowa City also has a thriving ped mall near the University of Iowa campus. (The Champaign mistake was located about 2 miles from the University of Illinois campus.) I'm guessing other funky college towns like Berkeley or Boulder might be able to support pedmalls, too.


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