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  • Revisiting Cold War Ideology in the Secure City: Towards a Political Economy of Urbicide
  • Michael Dudley (bio)

If civilized society has not yet outgrown is partly because the city itself in its structure and institutions continues to give war both a durable concrete form and a magical pretext for existence.

— Lewis Mumford1

1.0. Introduction: Returning to the City of Fear

In addition to providing the justification for an ongoing ‘war on terror’, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon triggered an intense discussion within the city planning and architecture fields over how best to plan for the “secure city2.” Within days of the attacks (and in the months and years that followed) American cities — particularly those with a large governmental presence — saw a rapid, grim transformation:

To appreciate how America has changed since 9/11, walk slowly through any major city.

What you’ll see dotting the landscape is the physical embodiment of fear. Security installations put up after the attacks continue to block public access and wrangle pedestrian traffic. Outside Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, garish purple planters menace rush-hour pedestrian traffic. The gigantic planters have abandoned all horticultural ambition, many of them blooming with nothing more than trash and untilled dirt. “French barriers,” steel-grate barricades meant for controlling crowds, ring many landmark sites — including San Francisco’s Transamerica Building — like beefy bodyguards protecting starlets. Then there are the bollards, the cylindrical vehicle-blocking posts that are so pervasive you wonder if they’ve mastered asexual reproduction. In Washington, bollards surround everything3.

This is the new American “securescape”, the goals of which are mostly hostile to tenets of mainstream urban design. As Vale (2005) explains, where New Urbanists seek narrower streets, hidden parking and enhanced pedestrian access, the new imperative for securitization promotes massive building setbacks, surface parking and controlled pedestrian access to key sites4. But these effects are not just localized; they are regional. This is particularly true in the case of Virginia, where workplaces for Department of Defense personnel have been decanted into suburbs, to constitute what Natsios refers to as “national security sprawl”5.

It is as if the new security aesthetic, in securing public space, “means securing space from the public, rather than for it”6 — an imperative which extends from the public realm to the private: “The single-family home is a rich lode of sensitive information...Sprawl’s complex information space has become captive to panoptic schemes of ‘multiple cartographies of surveillance’”7.

The extent to which security has become a driving factor in contemporary American urbanism is such that “security experts are acting as the associate architects on every project built today”8. Yet, in spite of this importance, the debate over this transformation has been rather circumscribed: it has been largely of a technical, aesthetic and instrumental nature: that is, more concerned with how best to achieve more secure cities and in a more livable fashion, rather than questioning in a comprehensive manner the rationales for and contexts of the urban security project itself, and — given these rationales and contexts — its likely outcome. This paper proposes that such an inquiry may be best joined by means of an historical analogy.

The present imperatives to make cities secure against terrorist attacks in the post-9/11 era have a compelling precedent in the Cold War “defensive dispersal” movement, which was a highly influential discourse within the city planning profession in the late 1940s and 1950s that sought to redesign cities to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons9. The particular arguments of the defensive dispersal movement and its place within the history of both the policy sciences in general and city planning discourse in particular have been explored elsewhere both by the present author and others10. What is of interest here is not a comparative analysis between the claims, principles and strategies of defensive dispersal writers and their post 9/11 counterparts, but rather an examination of the ideological contexts in which both discourses are set. This paper asks, what is the relationship of these discourses to the dominant geo-political ideologies of their respective eras?

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