Urban Flight, or Fight

One key indicator of whether terror has won the day in the United States is the Manhattan real estate market. Three months after Sept. 11, residential sale prices have bounced back - except, of course, in the few blocks around ground zero. And that's despite a recession.

Such a signal may mean Americans aren't slowly fleeing cities out of fear that they are easy targets for terrorists, as some analysts predicted.

Unlike the exodus of the 1960s when people fled urban crime, today's city dwellers may be more confident that government can protect them or that terrorists will be on the run for a very long time.

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Such confidence - and defiance - seems to outweigh any fears. But cities also still are enjoying a bounce-back that took off in the 1990s, and will likely continue to do so, as more Americans seek urban lifestyles. The urban revival has defied some forecasts that the long economic boom would turn cities into wastelands as high-tech industries sprung up in suburbia. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

City officials have learned how to create effective mixes of attractive shopping, higher culture, low crime, more housing, and better transportation. Some studies indicate, for example, that residents of low-rise buildings feel a greater responsibility for, and connection to, others.

Cities with an abundance of front doors, and front steps, provide natural surveillance. "People like density," says Elliot Sclar, director of urban planning at Columbia University in New York, "and the trend of New Urbanism is all about the rediscovery of the quality of pedestrian life."

Urban space also is being redefined by the new technologies. The Internet provides more flexibility for location of companies and workers, within urban settings.

And more cities have learned to promote their tourist spots better - although an over-reliance on tourism can also make cities vulnerable to sudden downturns. Just witness New York and Washington after Sept. 11.

Cities, in other words, are finding new economic balances - of culture, housing, and business - that the more-spread-out suburbs can't.

Ultimately, what keeps cities and metropolitan areas thriving is community, or at least the natural human desire for it. They exist for both business and social purposes (one of which is to assimilate new immigrants into American society).

After Sept. 11, many city dwellers may have asked themselves if it was time to bolt. Most, after reflection, appear to have chosen to exercise courage, and keep a strong stake in the urban ground.

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