Is sprawl a defense against terrorism?

Published December 1, 2001

Since the shock of September 11, almost every interest group in the nation is putting its spin on the terrorist attacks. Automobile opponents such as Gar Smith of Earth Island Journal blame the attacks on U.S. consumption of oil.

Following that line of thought, others say we should build more rail transit and intercity rail lines and promote smart growth. The U.S. “cannot depend on any single mode of transportation,” says Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, Mississippi.

Some urban mayors even hope the recent tragedy will give urban residents a “sense of community” that will keep them in the cities. Pittsburgh’s Mayor Thomas Murphy thinks installing metal detectors in public buildings and hiring more police will provide an urban atmosphere that is “safe and vibrant,” so residents won’t flee to the suburbs.

Environmentalists committed to smart growth feel a moral imperative to maintain dense inner cities. “The No. 1 environmental concern is that the center holds,” says Eric Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in favor of a “strong central core.” Suburbanization, claims Goldstein, would lead to increasing congestion, air pollution, longer commutes, and loss of open space. (Readers of the Vanishing Automobile know all of these claims are wrong.)

“Don’t bunch up”

Contrary to all these attempts at spin, historian Stephen Ambrose points out the real lesson behind the terrorist attack: “Don’t bunch up.” Maintaining a “strong central core,” he explains, only offers terrorists a better target.

“It is no longer necessary to pack so many people and offices into such small spaces as lower Manhattan,” writes Ambrose. “They can be scattered in neighboring regions and states, where they can work just as efficiently and in far more security.”

Even smart-growth advocate James Howard Kunstler has concluded “the age of the skyscrapers is at an end.” As other smart-growth advocates point out, their vision of the future is low- to mid-rise mixed-use housing: Brooklyn, not lower Manhattan.

But even that may be too dense for comfort for many people. “The logic of decentralization has never been more clear,” argues San Jose Mercury columnist Dan Gillmor. “Safety once resided in large numbers. In tomorrow’s world, there will be more safety in spreading out.”

That lesson should be clear to anyone who watched the horrifying video footage of the September 11 attacks. The World Trade Center compactly fit into just 16 acres, and the terrorists destroyed it and several nearby buildings with two airplanes. The Pentagon, which has about two-thirds of the office space of the WTC, sprawls across 583 acres. With one plane, the terrorists demolished only about 6 percent of that space.

(Incidentally, after adjusting for inflation the World Trade Center cost about three times as much to build per square foot of office space as did the Pentagon. So much for the “costs of sprawl.”)

Like sprawl or not, many corporations and individuals will take the “don’t bunch up” lesson to heart in the next few months and years. “Executives calculating where to house their employees are factoring in the need not to build something a suicide bomber might be tempted to knock down,” writes Holman Jenkins Jr., in the Wall Street Journal. Many firms whose offices were in the trade center, Jenkins adds, are “rushing to sign leases on nondescript properties outside the city, on terms suggesting no plans to come back.”

Future without skyscrapers?

Naturally, this has been a matter of major concern for New York City Mayor Giuliani from the very first. No doubt Chicago’s Mayor Daley is similarly worried about the future of the Sears Tower, and San Francisco’s Mayor Brown is worried about the Transamerica Tower.

Giuliani naturally wants to rebuild the trade center skyscrapers so as to keep businesses in his jurisdiction. New York Senators Clinton and Schumer have promised federal funds to do it. But such construction will be expensive . . . and unlikely to attract businesses that have learned the lessons of multiple attacks on the old trade center.

California sociologist J.F. Scott points out that the notion financial districts need towering skyscrapers to bring traders close enough together to do their work is refuted by Silicon Valley’s financial district in Menlo Park, California. That district, observes Scott, “consists of low-rise buildings (none over 3 stories) with abundant parking.”

Economist Paul Krugman frets whether the September 11 attack will “permanently damage New York’s position as America’s economic capital.” While he says, “this is a real question and deserves a serious answer,” it is in fact a question of concern only to Manhattan property owners and the City of New York. The rest of America doesn’t care whether our economic capital is in New York, Menlo Park, or somewhere in cyberspace (which is probably the safest place for it).

Contrary to those who think of the World Trade Center as a symbol of free enterprise, it was actually built by the Port Authority of New York to aggrandize the city and stem the tide of businesses spreading to suburban and other locations. The idea for the center was originally promoted by banker David Rockefeller and supported by his brother, Nelson Rockefeller, when he was New York governor.

The trade center towers were a financial failure for their first two decades, requiring subsidies from users of airports, bridges, and other Port Authority facilities. During the recent economic boom, the Port Authority managed to convince a developer, Larry Silverstein, to lease the center for 99 years.

Silverstein says he wants to rebuild the center, but in the form of four 50- to 60-story buildings instead of two 110-story structures. Shorter buildings would make less of a target, but might not be small enough to discourage companies from migrating to lower-density areas.

Trending toward low density

The very reason terrorism is so difficult to combat is that terrorists absolutely refuse to bunch up. Though Americans may want to defy the terrorists, the notion that we should all subsidize New York’s position as America’s economic capital, effectively bunching ourselves up, is absurd.

Without trying to put more spin on the situation, it is possible to predict some likely trends.

First, companies and individuals will slightly accelerate their move to lower density areas. Of course, the trend to the suburbs is more than a century old. Since 1920, Manhattan’s population has fallen from more than 2.5 million people to just 1.5 million today.

Mayor Giuliani’s recent order prohibiting single-occupant autos in Manhattan during certain hours won’t help, since in the long run those who want to drive such vehicles will simply go somewhere else. If Giuliani really wanted to help Manhattan, he would encourage developers to include huge parking garages in any buildings replacing the ones demolished on September 11.

Second, the terror will make it more difficult for sprawl opponents to argue that people should bunch up in compact cities. While the provincial New York Times gave NRDC’s claims lots of print space, Ambrose’s op ed in the Wall Street Journal will have a greater long-term impact because Ambrose is a popular writer not identified as pro- or anti-sprawl.

Third, if heightened security measures increase the costs or, especially, the time required to fly, people are going to do a lot more intercity driving. Air service will especially lose market share to the auto for trips of 250 miles or less.

Fourth, AMTRAK will probably use the increased demand for its services to convince Congress to bail it out for another few years. But unless there are further hijackings, rail will not gain a significant share over air or auto in any market. AMTRAK carries an insignificant share of intercity passenger miles in any case–less than a quarter of a percent in 1998. Passenger trains are pretty, but outside of the northeast corridor they’re not much of a salvation for U.S. transportation woes.

Fifth, local pride, the desire to maintain economic supremacy, and billions in federal aid will lead New York to disregard economic and security questions and rebuild new skyscrapers to replace the World Trade Center. Whether they will be 110-stories tall is still open to question, but they will no doubt stand out on the New York skyline.

Finally, smart-growth advocates will continue to twist the facts to make their crazy ideas appear reasonable.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.