I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I (or Robert Fogelson) thinks that the threat of nuclear war in the 1950s was anything but a minor footnote in the history of American decentralization, but this bit from Fogelson’s Downtown (I finally finished! – review forthcoming) caught my eye:
The belief that the central business district had outlived its usefulness was heightened by the growing fear of atomic warfare. Less than a year after the United States obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some Americans were wondering whether the modern city as doomed. As early as 1948 Tracy B. Augur, past president of the American Institute of Planners, declared that the only defense against atomic weapons was dispersal. “We cannot afford not to disperse our cities,” he said. “If we delay too long,” he warned, “we may wake up some morning and find that we haven’t any country, that is, if we wake up at all that morning.” Although some skeptics argued that dispersal would be impractical and ineffective, Augur and others made a strong impression on many Americans, even many who had a substantial stake in the well-being of the central business district. A good example is Albert D. Hutzler, president of Hutzler Brothers, Baltimore’s leading department store. Asked at the 1948 Businessmen’s Conference on Urban Problems, a conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Isn’t decentralization inevitable? Aren’t we wasting money and energy in trying to delay it?” he replied:
If you would have asked me that a few years ago, I would have been extremely hot in saying it was not inevitable. I would have been tremendously strong in saying that our best course was redevelopment, spending all the money necessary for it. However, I have wavered a little bit since the atomic bomb. I am quite serious. I wonder whether, from a military standpoint, it might be better to save this money to develop additional subsidiary sections and to let the central business district remain fairly stationary.
This immediately reminded me of James Kunstler’s widely-cited op-ed in Planitzen less than a week after 9/11:
We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed. Who will ever again feel safe and comfortable working 110 storeys above the ground? Or sixty storeys? Or even twenty-seven? We predict that no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled. This will lead to a radical transformation of city centers – which, however, would be an immensely positive step towards improving the quality of urban life. The only megatowers left standing a century hence may be in those third-world countries who so avidly imported the bric-a-brac of the industrialized world without realizing the damage they were inflicting on their cities. This essay looks at criticisms of tall buildings, while offering some practical solutions.
Kunstler’s prediction was, of course, totally self-serving – even before 9/11 his New Urbanist movement preferred short buildings.
And I’m not quite sure how this ties in with everything else, but I should note that al-Qaeda seems to have an irrational obsession with airplanes and tall buildings (and thank god for that!). As many have noted, Islamic terrorism would be a lot more terrifying to Americans if they opened fire on random people at random suburban malls and big-box stores. Not to mention that it would be a whole lot easier to pull off than some complicated airborne plot.