Friday, July 08, 2005

Defensible Space

The attack on London's subway does not bode well for urbanism.

The US terror alert was raised yesterday to orange for mass transit hubs, though the nationwide level stayed at the yellow it has generally been since it was instituted. Because of the threat of rain, thunderstorms, and flashflood warnings, I did not bicycle into work today, instead taking a shuttle bus and the Metro. I arrived half an hour late because traffic on the 3 mile shuttle route (suburban Alexandria to Pentagon City) was bumper to bumper. I am convinced this is because of the London bombings and the fear of an attack in DC subway stations.

During the 1940s and into the 50s, the federal government began moving many of their agencies out of the increasingly congested capital district and into suburban Maryland and Virginia. The Pentagon just across the Potomac from DC was finished in 1943. NASA, out near Greenbelt, MD, was established in 1958. The CIA is in Langley, VA, where Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of their building in 1959, and the list goes on. It was in part because of this decentralization that the Capital Beltway was conceived and built -- to promote and facilitate decentralized development about DC.

During the early years of the Cold War, suburbanization was often promoted as being a preventative measure against nuclear attack -- if you lived far enough out from the city, your home, neighborhood, and life couldn't be destroyed by an attack on the central city. While we didn't see a nuclear attack, the subway bombings may be just as psychologically damaging. Tube ridership in London is necessarily lighter today, but London's is a history of robust urbanism -- you'd have to go back to the 1400s to see it as anything but an important, even global, city. But ridership in DC and New York are probably lighter today too, and probably will be for the next few weeks. This, of course, strains our clotted and sclerotic highways and, of course, INCREASES our dependence on foreign oil, fueling this vicious circle of Middle East intervention and backlash, if you'll pardon the pun.

What are we to do? I remain committed to cities and to my biking for the remainder of my stay in DC.

UPDATE: Scott Simon on Weekend Edition had an interesting piece this morning in which he discussed the cultural meaning of the Tube, where Londoners would seek shelter during the German bombing of the city during WWII. Perhaps it's my own romance with the subway -- I LOVE standing shoulder to shoulder with 150 people on the cars in the morning -- but these terrorists really know how to nail some culturally and spiritually important targets.


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