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James Howard Kunstler
08/03/2003

In a conversation earlier this week, a friend who has been reading articles on this site asked me how I thought new development should proceed, since I seem to be "against" suburbia.

In thinking about my answer, I was reminded of a talk that I went to see back in October 2001. James Howard Kunstler came to Toronto, and gave a talk at Hart House entitled "Surviving Suburba in the 21st Century". I enjoyed the talk so much, I wrote up a summary of observations and sent it to my friends:

Hello all,

I thought I'd write to you and let you know about the talk I enjoyed at Hart House today from 3-5pm. It was given by "renowned anti-sprawl guru" James Howard Kunstler. (More information about him and his books can be found at the end of this email.)

I had seen Kunstler's books before, but hadn't been as interested in them as others on this same subject because they seemed to be very "American" and also focused entirely on traditional aesthetic aspects over environmental/sustainability ones. I was interested in him, just not interested enough to buy the book.

Anyway, his talk today was very entertaining! For those of you living in Toronto, I'm sorry that you missed out. Let me just share some highlights with you…

  • Kunstler is an American who can talk about a complex issue in a very plain, straightforward manner. His blunt exposure of his ideas is irreverent, communicative, and very funny.
  • The presentation (to about 100 people in a beautiful room in Hart House) was done mostly in the dark, as we looked at slides illustrating urbanism at its best (mostly European, historical American, or New Urbanism) and worst (surburban sprawl, or, as he calls it, The National Automobile Slum).
  • He repeatedly referred to a modernistic movement that -- post WWII -- threw our urban architectural cultural history into the garbage and started to create new, car-oriented design
  • The root cause was the unpleasant environment of the early industrial city that created a new desire for a cultural archetype: The Country Villa. Everyone wanted to live in a country villa, and after 1950, that's what developers tried to sell everyone.
  • The problem, of course, is that not everyone can live in the country. Instead we get a cartoon version of the country villa: the suburban home. (This was one recurring theme, the cartoonization of life in America. He, optimistically, feels it is bound to fail because the real is always better than the virtual.)
  • The result is an environment that instead of striving for universal excellence, produces universal mediocrity and misery.
  • Suburban development features no "wallpaper of the public realm" as he refers to the streetscape of urban successes like Paris which create a "room" in which public life occurs.
  • Kunstler didn't pull punches. Showing slides of suburban-style housing in Columbine, he said that youth growing up in such an environment see that there is no value in the future, no past, and thus a miserable present. Teenagers being inexperienced at dealing with problems, and with a tendency to project onto themselves (no community future=no future for me), therefore are more likely to develop emotional problems, drug situations (of the illegal or Prozak variety), or worse.
  • The suburban streets are places no one wants to be. No wonder stores are designed for shoppers who want to do a "commando hit, get their stuff and flee"
  • Kunstler also criticized the "greens" for asking for green space in cities when they should be asking for more specific things like public squares, etc. "Ask for green space, and you'll get a berm."
  • The elite of the architecural world today, continue to promote, design, and build structures that are "inhuman". (Kunstler slammed Robarts Library, the U of T gym, and the new graduate residence.) He says that these elites strive at being "geniuses of producing buildings like nothing anyone has ever seen before" rather than trying to design cities that work. He ridiculed their rationale that their art is a reflection of today's problems: "I have enough problems, thanks, besides having to try to find the door."
  • Kunstler, however, was also quite hopeful about the future. He showed a number of slides that showed recent good buildings contributing to main streets with real communities. He also showed an interesting project in which an abandoned mall is being redeveloped. The parking lot is being replaced with streets, city blocks, and "normal-sized" lots on which a new downtown of 3-storey buildings is arrising.
  • He pointed out that a new generation of planners is starting to take over, and is even infiltrating the elite Ivy League schools that have been the bastion of the modernist architects.
  • Kunstler was also optimistic about the end result of the September 11 attacks. He seemed certain that as a result of world tensions, oil could be cut off at any moment, resulting in a sky-rocket of prices and a return to a less car-centred way of living. And, if it doesn't happen now, it will happen soon enough as oil production peaks and begins to recede. I don't know if I'm so sure that it will occur so soon...
  • Speaking of Sept 11, he also pointed out the real political problem produced by sprawl. It creates a world devoid of public attachment, something not worth caring about. (That's why he calls it The National Automobile Slum, because a slum is a place where people have abandoned hope or concern.) Places not worth caring about are places not worth fighting for. So, he actually goes far enough to question the motivation of Americans to defend their world.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed the talk. Kunstler was hilarious and made a lot of great points. If I can suggest any downside about him, it might be that I got the impression that his extreme bluntness extends beyond this subject matter into his dealings with everybody. But that's only a sense I got; i could be wrong.

Your correspondent,
-Andrew

I visited Kunstler's webpage today and discovered two interesting features. One is his funny "Eyesore of the Month". The other is his interesting self-coded blog, which he calls The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle -- a mix of insightful commentary on life and the built environment in America, predictions of an imminent oil crisis and resulting economic transformation, along with a dash of duct-tape xenophobia.

Anyway, back to the question I was asked, about how I felt new development ought to proceed... One insight in Kunstler's talk was that the suburban household is the result of an impossible desire to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with the benefits of the city nearby. Unfortunately, not everyone can live in a house in the woods, just past the edge of the city. Instead we have suburbia, the bastard child of the urban and rural lifestyles. The answer is that I would hope future development be urban, rather than suburban. This doesn't mean that everyone must live in condo towers. On the contrary, what it means is that I hope that we avoid building new 4-square-kilometre development tracts of cul-de-sacs without a convenience store, library, or bus stop within walking distance.


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