Osama bin Laden's first defeat: 'Fortress America' never really materialized

May 3, 2011

The mighty twin towers of New York's World Trade Center towers fell to earth on September 11, 2001 and changed the way Americans looked at buildings and the built environment. Skyscrapers and dense, developed, yet open cities were a sign of civilization: that through design, technology and engineering, the attributes of light, air, water, structure, livability and beauty--and commerce--could be balanced.

Osama bin Laden threatened to permantly change that. After 9/11, tall buildings were seen as potential terrorist targets. Chicago's Trump Tower was planned as a 150-story building, but the design was knocked down to 90 floors after the 9/11 attacks. Openness became a threat as concrete highway barriers--so-called "Jersey barriers"--started going up across sidewalks and curb lines around downtown Chicago and other cities. Would American cities have to reshape themselves into hardened, restricted zones in order to respond to the new terrorist threat? Bin Laden's actions changed how we move through airports. Would he change the look of our cities as well? Within weeks of 9/11, it looked like a distinct possibility.

I was Mayor Daley's deputy chief of staff for architecture and urban planning at the time of the terrorist attacks. Within days, information came pouring into the mayor's office. Owners of significant downtown buildings were seeking city permission to put Jersey barriers in the public way in order to cordon off access and prevent evil doers from ramming their buildings with vehicles. The federal General Services Administration wanted a bus stop removed in front of one of the downtown federal buildings--a request that caused a deputy city transportation commissioner to retort during a meeting I attended, "What sense does that make? You think a terrorist is going to catch the CTA? And if he does, he's gonna say, Oh sh*t, I can't attack here because the bus now stops a block away?' "

The mayor personally drove the policy on this issue. He allowing us to permit the barriers, but only temporarily. During that time, building owners would have to submit plans to the city for a permanent and aesthetically-pleasing barrier system. Building owners worked with architects to develop fortified planters or bollard systems that were as tough as the Jersey barriers, but not as harsh-looking. Many other building owners downtown entirely skipped making the permanent improvements after the barriers were pulled up.

For instance, Willis Tower got a set of heavy planters on its Franklin street side. The Federal Reserve Bank at Jackson and LaSalle has a series of bollards running along the sidewalk; the flutes in the bollards match those of the six Corinthian columns at the building's entrance. The GSA got permission to put rectangular granite bollards along its downtown buildings, although in retrospect the barriers are often a pain get around when the sidewalk is crowded--particularly at the intersections along Jackson.

No doubt, going inside downtown buildings can be a hassle involving queing up at guards' desks to show IDs. In the case of UBS Tower, 1 N. Wacker, you get checked in at a security point and still a person from the office you're visiting has to come down to the lobby (and it's a 50-story building) to get you. The Willis Tower has metal detectors that your bags and person have to pass through. But Chicago's public way is relatively unchanged since the attacks.

Bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind who was killed Sunday by U.S. forces in Pakistan, caused American cities to make security adjustments after 9/11. Folks are monitored and tracked through technology now more than ever, and that is unnerving.  But Fortress America--the wholesale change and devaluing of America's built environment in response to the terrorist attacks--never materialized. We are not a country behind bunkers. Nor are we a city behind barricades, despite Chicago having a number of potential high-value terrorist targets. Maintaining cities with acessible architecture and open public spaces are the best expressions of a democratic society...and an early sign of Bin Laden's eventual defeat.