Published on January 20th, 2012 | by Daniel Rahe


The City of Contained Destiny

It is difficult to find books these days extolling the theoretical value of sprawling suburban developments. Even pop culture supports the notion that an authentic life is best lived in a city, and a superficial life is best lived in Saddle Ridge. We are now nudged to look upon the cul-de-sac with disdain, and to look to history for the way forward.

Varying urbanist theorists offer a staggering volume of historical insights, while highlighting the great difficulty of repairing the damage already done by decades of haphazard expansion. Meanwhile, the goliath industry of New Housing Construction lies facedown on a hill in Bonney Lake, without a hint of optimism or opulence.

A suburban development, where a few sad people may or may not abide

It feels sometimes as if our only hope is to turn the clock backwards, to unring the bells. But how far, exactly, should we turn back the clock? 1947? 1962? 1898? Or shall we cherrypick history, retrieving from many eras one cohesive approach to urban planning?

Of course, cherrypicking is the best approach – taking advantage of the successes and failures of multiple generations. But for the sake of literary device, let’s hang on to this “clock turning back” thing. Perhaps we have depleted the reserves of our innovative capitol. Perhaps we’ve chased the carrot-on-a-stick of “bigger, better, more” into an inevitable dead end by enhancing and enshrining individual autonomy – protecting our privacy with space and isolation. Do we truly place value on the essential human need for community?

For a better view of the way forward, perhaps it may be useful to re-examine thoroughly what it means to be part of a human community.

Throughout history, people have formed communities. And whether stationary or nomadic, these communities are bound more than anything else by a desire for collective security – the very foundation of society.

Is this basic motivation still reflected in our municipal values?

Just as contemporary Westerners have lost sight of the value of contained development, I believe we’ve also lost sight of the value of collective security. Never once during an average day do I consider whether Tacoma is safe from invasion by Barbarian raiders; nor, I’m sure, do you. But just as we are returning to an appreciation for mass transit, I believe we should also rediscover the civic virtue of urban defenses.

Now, you may argue that urban defense was rendered unnecessary by the transition from city-states to nation-states. I say, tell that to the marauding hordes of the future, man! Have you seen The Road, The Book of Eli, The Terminator, Left Behind, Children of Men or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome? An apocalypse is probably coming – whether induced by robots, nature, deities, insurgents, aliens, or the cumulative iniquities of the damned.

When the indomitable spirit of humanity emerges from the wreckage of this crisis, the scene will be grim. Centralized governments will be paralyzed, and local municipalities will be left to fend for themselves with meager resources.

In such an environment, a walled city will have a distinct advantage.

Wall Cross-section & Detail

Admittedly, building a 145-foot-tall barricade of stone and mortar (with abundant boiling-tar dispensaries) around the City of Tacoma would be a significant Public Works project, and would likely have to be funded by some kind of bond measure. But a construction project of such magnitude would put thousands of unemployed contractors back to work, while immediately putting other cities on notice.

Seattle would never undertake such a bold project, primarily because it is now a city of tunnels, which are the natural enemy of walls.

A massive bulwark system of bunkers, catwalks, watchtowers, and balustrades would attract significant business revenue. Major tech companies would eagerly seize upon the opportunity to relocate their campuses to a place of tranquil security. Insurance companies would offer discounted rates to businesses operating within walled communities, thus attracting even greater commercial migration. Home values would skyrocket – especially in the highest and thus least vulnerable points in town – from the measurable premium of security.

Think of it! “Tacoma – Where Your Children Are Safe From Barbarians, and Your Subaru Can’t Be Pillaged By Invaders.”  I’d wager the idea would be quite popular in Steampunk circles.

While a 45-foot-thick cut-stone urban fortification would certainly attract and generate value for the City, it would also protect and defend elements the City of Tacoma already contains. In a post-apocalyptic society, the value of grit will surely rise. Tacoma’s grit supply would be a key strategic resource, and the envy of surrounding hordes. It must be protected by any means at our disposal.

Proposed location of defensible wall

Aeschylus once said, “The dog that licks the gravy is the dog that comes back to the shepherd’s tent.” Likewise, proponents of New Urbanism should embrace the concept of localized defensive structures with the same enthusiasm they have for the classic grid subdivision design.

Jericho – Example of an urban defensive wall that failed due to permissive noise ordiances

Think of all the community gardens that could be planted along the upper track of such a wall! Imagine the affordable housing units that could be built into the wall itself, nestled safely between bunkers and food silos! The tar-boiling units would be powered by solar panels secured to the LEED-certified watchtowers. Miles of walking paths, parks, and art installations would run concentric to the wall’s inner perimeter.

TO PONDER: If a wall is built around Tacoma, would it be necessary to allow Federal Way to annex Northeast Tacoma?

NEXT WEEK: For some children, the sky is the limit. For others, the sky is a blue place with clouds. Who determines which is which?

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About the Author

Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.

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