Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Fear and City Building

Nan Ellin

Old dovecote, Jouy-le-Moutier (2013). Via Wikimedia Commons.

My interest in the relationship between fear and city building was sparked while doing research on the French new town of Jouy-le-Moutier sixteen years ago. This new town was an experiment in neotraditional urbanism (or the New Urbanism), an effort to build a new town which looks and functions something like an old town. I wanted to discover whether or not this was a good strategy for city building, so I lived there and visited many of its inhabitants, inquiring about their likes and dislikes regarding the town. Invariably, the subject of fear arose despite the miniscule crime rate in the area. I initially paid little heed and simply waited for the conversation to turn back to the subject of my research. I soon realized, however, that the concern about insecurity was central to the nostalgia for the past that incited neo-traditional tendencies and to my evaluation of its success at Jouy-le-Moutier.

Returning from the immaculate French new town, I saw New York City with different eyes. Living in my East Harlem neighborhood amongst abandoned buildings, crack houses, fortified housing projects, and scores of homeless people, I began reflecting not only upon the motivations for defensive urbanism but also on possibilities for diminishing the fear through design and other means. In this essay, I offer a brief history of fear and its relationship to city building in the West along with some new directions in urban design that respond to fear proactively rather than reactively.

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