Mohamed Atta, Urban Planner/Philosopher King

Slate has a set of pieces by Daniel Brook on Mohamed Atta’s urban planning thesis. Except for the self-conscious throat-clearing at the beginning where Brook spends way too much time blithering on about how he knew the thesis was important when others overlooked it, this is a nice, insightful look at the ideological ramifications of urban planning. It is an unavoidably normative profession. Think about “Smart Growth.” Nobody is in this because they want “Dumb Growth.” The same is true of policy. People don’t study because they want to help foster bad government. Those of us in the policy/planning/management and, perhaps to a lesser degree, development, are here because we think those things can be done better.

The window into Atta’s thesis that Brooks provides helps us understand the terrorist’s worldview. There is a fundamentalism present in his work on Aleppo, though few contemporary urban planners would see much to fault in his grand vision to tear down freeways and high-rises to restore the Islamic vernacular. This is the danger of grand plans that planners can not cover with any amount of New Urbanist gloss: major social change is hurtful. It takes time and healing, even when it is ultimately for the good. It was wrong to build highways on communities, as French planners did, and chances are just as good that Atta’s grand vision of demolishing high-rises would also hurt in ways other than just the bricks, mortar, and glass and Westernism he intended to. In urban planning, like everything else, two wrongs seldom make a right.

This is a cautionary tale. I’m about ready to go to ACSP where I will be regaled with would-be philosopher kings explaining to me how high-speed rail will save the planet and make fat people, like me, walk more so we will be thin. I doubt any one will tell me about the significance of bus benches. We do not think small, we philosopher-kings, and as a result we miss those kinds of details and, depending on the context, can cause enormous hurt.