fb-pixel Skip to main content
RENÉE LOTH

Urban planning can help curb violence

Can better urban planning help prevent terrorist attacks? The idea sounds fanciful, even disrespectful to victims of extremist violence. But officials in Paris, still reeling from last month’s deadly terrorist attacks on a satirical magazine and a kosher deli, are putting some hope in a plan to re-zone the city and annex the notorious inner suburbs, or banlieues, where the terror plot was born.

In what would be perhaps the greatest redesign of Paris since Baron Haussmann laid out its famed boulevards in the mid-19th Century, the “Métropole du Grand Paris” would attempt to bring the poor, heavily immigrant neighborhoods to the north of Paris inside the municipal fold, sharing resources but also fostering a greater sense of belonging.

The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, described the alienated pockets of unemployed young men on the fringes of the city as a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” that can foster violent ideologies. The plan is a long way from realization, but it reflects an awareness that seemingly mundane urban design decisions — from housing density to the location of subway lines — can exacerbate social isolation, with profound effects.

Advertisement



Of course, terrorism has a complex provenance, and solving it will require a multi-faceted approach. But Paris is not the only place where racial or social violence has been blamed in part on poor urban planning. After Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood vigilante in Sanford, Fla., because he looked suspicious simply walking down the street, several analysts noted that the design of Sanford discourages an active street life, where neighbors might get to know one another. The kind of gated community where Martin’s assailant lived, they said, perpetuates a divisive mindset that can heighten mistrust of strangers. A year after the killing, the mayor of Sanford launched an urban redevelopment plan designed to connect isolated neighborhoods, with a new SunRail commuter line and the extension of a popular Riverwalk trail.

Responding to the violence that shook Ferguson, Mo., last summer after the unarmed Michael Brown was killed by police, a Brookings Institution fellow concluded that the “concentrated poverty” of the older suburbs around St. Louis was deeply ingrained in part because such “small, fragmented municipalities” can’t accumulate the resources to operate good public services. Ferguson’s physical design only aggravates its problems, since the lack of common public space contributes to civic alienation.

Advertisement



The notion that good urban design can promote an equitable, peaceful society dates at least to the 1960s, when the urbanist William H. Whyte launched his deep studies of pedestrian behavior in New York. He concluded that strangers can be forged into community through well-designed public spaces, and that the smallest details — the orientation of doorways, the location of benches, the width of sidewalks — can affect human behavior. Today these insights are even more crucial given the pressures of mass urbanization, especially in the developing world.

A United Nations report in 2013 advised leaders of the globe’s sprawling megacities that neglecting basic principles of urban planning can lead to widespread crime and social disruption. A mass of people living in poverty without access to clean water, electricity, or transportation, vulnerable to natural disasters, and fighting over scarce resources is hardly a recipe for social comity. “If cities are to play their role as drivers of economic and social development,” the report concluded, “these challenges have to be addressed through effective planning.”

The city of Medellin, Colombia, is a case in point. The locus of savage drug cartels for decades, it was seemingly ungovernable, as smugglers and assassins terrorized local residents. Then, beginning in the early 2000s, three consecutive mayors pushed ahead with an urban plan to improve transportation, housing, and civic life in the city’s sprawling favelas. Among the most creative ideas were three new funicular cable-car lines that cut across the hillside slums, slashing commuting times and improving employment, social integration, and commercial activity. Crime receded. Now Medellin is a model city, with a nascent tourist industry.

Advertisement



Even the best city plan is a weak bulwark against generations of alienation and despair. But if urban design can foster lawlessness and resentment, the opposite is also true. Beyond just building cities, we should take care to build a more civil society.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.