One of the odd and troubling ideas that crossed the nation in the weeks after September 11 was the notion that as a safeguard against terror, urban sprawl might be a good thing after all.
On the right, for example, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called for cities to spread out further. The op-ed page of the Detroit News noted that “in the wake of Sept. 11, the constituency for density has probably thinned out.”
On the left, editors of Newcolonist.com, a Web site that pays attention to urban and suburban design, interviewed national experts to “get an early feel for how the attacks may affect perceptions of density, transportation, and city life.”
With the murderous collapse of New York City's tallest buildings, both proponents and critics of the useful work to contain sprawl can be excused for wondering whether skyscrapers have outlived their usefulness and spreadout suburbs are a safer bet. But viewing dense city neighborhoods as somehow an easy target and the suburbs as a haven from terrorism overlooks some of the underlying causes of the Sept. 11 attack. Continuing to spread out across the landscape will only aggravate the situation.
It takes only the first raw scent of the smoldering piles of debris at Ground Zero in New York, and a quick glance at the guts of blasted, black-charred buildings fluttering in a smoky wind, to immediately agree with President George W. Bush that the attacks were a direct strike at what he called “the American way of life.” That way of life is not only tied to our freedom and mobility. It's also expressed in the wasteful design of our sprawling communities and the need to sustain them by reaching ever deeper into the far corners of the globe to satisfy American demand for oil, minerals, timber, labor and capital.
To the extent the horrendous attacks laid bare America's oil dependence, or our unwelcome presence in the Middle East, the Smart Growth vision of more energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, livable communities is certainly one of the most cogent long-term responses yet put forward about how to truly strengthen national security.
This is no idle thought. The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world's population, uses 19.45 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Department of Energy, or 26 percent of global production. More than 60 percent of the nation's oil supply is imported, and one quarter of U.S. oil imports come from the Middle East. The United States needs all that oil because almost three-quarters is used for transportation, with most consumed by cars and light trucks navigating increasingly congested suburbs. In other words the design of our car-culture communities accounts entirely for our ever-increasing thirst for oil.
Conservative leaders in Congress and their allies in the energy industry argue that the means to improving national security is to drill for more oil domestically, especially in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a technical research group in Washington, at peak production the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may yield only 500,000 barrels a day.
That's 2.5 percent of today's demand and less than 1.5 percent of the expected demand a decade from now if nothing changes in how America uses oil. Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said in an interview, “The idea that you can protect yourself from Middle East production behavior by pumping oil out of Alaska is nonsense. There just won't be enough production there to make a difference.''
In other words, the United States cannot drill its way out of oil dependence. A more rational response to energy insecurity is to focus on alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels, and to reduce demand. Improving the average fuel economy of American vehicles by just three miles per gallon, for instance, would save one million barrels of oil daily, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, or twice what would be produced in the Arctic refuge.
Designing communities so that people can walk or take mass transit to their jobs or to the store, as they do in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, Washington, and the nation's other great cities is another means to reducing oil dependence and improving national security.
Before Sept. 11, the movement to curb sprawl was steadily gaining momentum in Michigan and nationwide. New public policy that promoted more compact, walkable communities provided a cogent solution to urban degradation, traffic congestion, farmland loss, pollution, and rising municipal costs that have diminished the economy and quality of life.
The aftermath of Sept. 11 added an unpredicted and visceral new dimension to the Smart Growth movement. More sprawl won't enable Americans to run away from terror. Rather, the deaths of so many Americans on our own soil heightened the urgency to design communities in the 21st century that use energy and natural resources much more efficiently.
Keith Schneider, a nationally known environmental writer, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism and commentary see www.mlui.org.