September 13, 2001— WE AT PROJECT for Public Spaces and the Urban Parks Institute are closer to the World Trade Center tragedy than we’d like to be. Our offices are located just a few blocks south of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which received many of the victims, and less than two miles north of what was once the World Trade Center. As we mourn the dead and injured, we feel fortunate that all of us and our immediate families are safe.
Some might believe that this attack would cause people to retreat into their homes, or flee the city. One goal of this terrorist act, after all, was clearly to frighten and isolate us – thereby further encouraging divisiveness and hate. However, we can report that the opposite is happening. We are seeing how this disaster has led people to affirm public life more than ever.
All over New York City, people are gravitating to public places. Along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, with its views of the now-incomplete Manhattan skyline clouded by dust and smoke, a quiet, uninterrupted vigil takes place. In Union Square and Washington Square, people are offering comfort and stories to each other. In Brooklyn neighborhoods close to the waterfront – and Manhattan’s financial district – that were dusted with soot and debris from the explosions, people emerged from their homes to talk in the street, on the sidewalks, and in the parks.
All of these people, all of these places, help us to re-affirm the value of public life in the face of such overwhelming violence. The need to gather, to share stories, to celebrate, protest and grieve in a common place is basic, human, and universal. We must continue to allow – and encourage – the diversity, culture and commerce of the United States to thrive in healthy, livable cities, markets, parks and neighborhoods. At this critical time, when so many are scorched by tragedy and fighting fear, we cannot afford to react by building higher fences. Instead we must come together on common ground to re-establish our communities as the foundations of a civilized, compassionate society.