Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

In 2000, the noted author and social critic spoke in Glens Falls, New York. I was there and spoke to him about the state of the world. It was bad then; it's worse now.

On Tuesday, July 11th, 2000, I was privileged to attend a speech entitled "Can Glens Falls Survive Suburbia?" at Crandall Library in Glens Falls, New York.

I've lived, worked or gone to school in Glens Falls since 1985, so I was extremely intrigued to learn one of my favourite authors, James Howard Kunstler, was going to address the future of the city.

Kunstler is a member of the New Urbanism movement, which seeks to educate citizens, civic leaders and government officials about how people interact with their environment. Kunstler and others advocate learning from history about what forms of planning, architecture and design contribute to how people respond to their living environment, and acting to effect positive change at the local level.

Kunstler's two books, The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, eloquently lay out his philosophy, in an engaging style that explains the tenets of the New Urbanism in terms that anyone with even a halfway open mind should be able to comprehend, absorb, and act upon.

At its most simple, I think it boils down to this: people are happier and healthier when they exist in a living environment that is organic and logical. Neighbourhoods where, say, people living in second-floor apartments can walk to the market, as Kunstler points out, to get a newspaper. Where trees are planted to fulfill a specific set of purposes (shade, protection of pedestrians from traffic, and to separate where people and vehicles travel among them), not to give an illusion that you are living deep in the North Woods (as he puts it).

Kunstler's style is appealingly ironic -- in his speech in Glens Falls, he used slides to illustrate his points, including photographs of some truly hideous landmarks (local and otherwise) that have popped up to desecrate the American landscape since the conclusion of World War II.

The result has been millions of people living in thousands of communities that are in conflict with the natural needs and desires of humanity. Strip malls, fry pits (Kunstler's term not only for fast-food nightmares like McDonalds but more pretentious "neighbourhood grills" like Applebee's), the Universal Automobile Slum. It has all, Kunstler seems to say, contributed to the lack of human dignity or sense of community for the vast majority of people living in these U.S. communities. He frankly attributes the depression many Americans suffer from, at least in part, to the conflict between what kind of environment people need and the empty, insulting, and vaguely horrific approximation modern living has delivered.

The irony is, it would not be all that difficult to get back the kinds of communities that people can live not merely exist in. In his speech, Kunstler outlined some simple steps, including mandated design of new construction (honouring both the community's history and human needs), and tax incentives to get businesses and people to move back into downtown areas. To make them once more organic and alive instead of sterile, illogical and doomed.

Right now, as a resident of Glens Falls, it seems my community could go either way. Kunstler even said during his speech that it's clear the city is in a transitional period. I hope most people came away from the speech as energized and convinced as I am of the value of Kunstler's ideas.

One of the great things about Kunstler's style is that he really, truly has a gift for explaining what he is talking about. What he terms the Universal Automobile Slum may seem to the uninitiated or disinterested as a vague concept, but it only takes a few minutes for Kunstler to illuminate what exactly has gone wrong in this country and the way its people are living.

In the post-War era, Americans fell in love with their cars. 50 years later, virtually every community in the country is built around the presumption that everyone wants to drive miles and miles to carry out every detail of their lives.
Drive to the mall. Drive to work. Drive to the supermarket. As an added bonus, each of these destinations is generally designed to subliminally oppress the human spirit with their near-universal grotesqueries. As Kunstler pointed out in his speech, the problem isn't that all of America's communities look the same, it's that they all are equally hideous. He got quite a few laughs (the sort of laughter that comes from the recognition of a truth) when he pointed out that no one comes back from Paris complaining that all the streets are the same. They are, he says, but they are all equally beautiful, well-designed public spaces.

In my local community, there are some well-designed public spaces, areas that Kunstler feels work well or could work well with a minimum of change. But there are also parts of Glens Falls that are at complete odds with any kind of design sense. For example, he used a slide to illustrate a bank building with an enormous, steep handicap ramp that very probably would not be navigable by anyone in a wheelchair.

After the speech, I spoke briefly to Mr. Kunstler:

Alan David Doane: One of the things that I found most interesting, given the conservative, sort of pro-big business, destroy everything and allow these big box stores to go up everywhere (attitude), is where you talked about suburban sprawl as a threat to freedom. How do you think you can get that message across to people that it not only endangers sort of an aesthetic point of view, but also the very structure of our lives?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, I think people are unfortunately going to learn the hard way when the auto-dependent life becomes a problem. They're going to discover that, in fact, this is a tremendous limitation on their freedom to use their everyday world and really exercise their choice about how they want to go to where they want to be, and I think it's going to be an increasingly terrible problem as the world oil markets become unstable and we can no longer really predict what the supply and price of gasoline is going to be. Even if it's just sort of a moderate fluctuation, it's still going to be a problem.

As you pointed out (in your speech), even 30 cents a gallon is going to make a difference.

And even if it goes down and up, and down and up, and down and up, it's going to mean problems for people. It doesn't have to just go steadily up, although I think overall it will. But even if it goes up and down in a way that--the price of gas, that is--in a way that is unpredictable, it's going to be tremendously difficult for these national chain retail outfits that depend utterly on massive long-range trucking to make their operations work. Wal-Mart's basic operation is known as The Warehouse on Wheels. The way they make their money, they don't store their stuff, it's constantly in motion, going from wherever they take it off a container ship to its destination in the regional warehouse.

I think that's going to be a problem, it's already obviously a problem, even with gas being cheap. The whole experience of having to live in a really, massive suburban environment like you find in Atlanta, or Houston, or Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., y'know, where many, many people live. These places are getting so horrible to just be in that, you know, people are tremendously depressed. The amount of depression and anxiety that's just being generated by these terrible surroundings is enough, I think, to be causing problems for people.

Don't you think, for the most part, short of coming to something like this (event), they really don't understand exactly why it is they're depressed?

I think that's probably true. I'd say that there are probably plenty of people who are being very negatively affected by their surroundings, who probably don't think
-- it would never occur to them that that's the problem.

You showed the picture of Route 50 (in Wilton, New York, an area overwhelmed with out-of-control retail businesses like McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Target, Taco Bell, and many more blights on the landscape), a very disturbing scene to look at, and fortunately you're able to express very eloquently why that is, but I don't think most people, if you'd gone up to most of these people before your speech, and asked Why is that so hideous?, I don't think that they would have (been able to explain) it. Do you find that the New Urbanism--are you able to spread the word beyond these small sort of gatherings?

I'm not the only guy who's out there; Peter Katz is out there, Peter Calthorpe is out there, Andres Duany is out there. Lots and lots of people are out there, speaking and doing charettes, and I think furnishing Americans with nomenclature and a vocabulary for understanding what's happened to them and what they can do about it. But it is a problem to not have a vocabulary to discuss it, and because a lot of communities have not used the vocabulary, the terminology, they've been having a fairly incoherent discussion. And they end up arguing about things like density. They're against it, basically. So there's been a tremendous amount of political paralysis and conflict arising out of these issues and an inability to resolve them in a favorable way.

The things that make us human, that sets us apart from the animals, are the ability to learn from the past, and plan for the future. You're asking for both of those things, two things that I think the average politician is just about completely incapable of.

Well, we go through these periods in American life when our culture is more or less coherent, when there is more or less a sense of common purpose. I certainly think that people who lived during the trauma of World War II knew why they were fighting. And knew why America had to go through this ordeal. And knew why they had to behave the way they were being asked to behave. Knew why they were being asked to drive less and grow vegetables and so on. There was a consensus in the year 1900 that streetcars would be a great thing. And I think this country benefited tremendously from having those wonderful systems, which were unfortunately destroyed and systematically disassembled in the 1920s and '30s. Those were things, the City Beautiful movement, which occurred also around the turn of the century, was a great instance of a great patriotic movement, having a great sense of common purpose among civic leaders of all kinds.

Politicians, architects, artists, business people, all supported the activities that went on in the City Beautiful movement, and the result of it was we got beautiful commercial buildings, we got beautiful schools, we got beautiful houses, we got beautiful courthouses, we got even beautiful power plants! Because the agreement was there, the sense of purpose that we needed public beauty in our lives. What we discovered around 1900 was that we had become a great nation. And that we deserved great buildings and great public spaces and great towns and great cities that were worthy of our new status in the world. Now we're in another situation, where we need to discover that we need an everyday world that's worthy of our humanity, that's worthy of our spirit, that is worthy of our aspirations for a good life. And right now it's all being kind of fogged out and eclipsed and there's a lot of static in the air, and people are being distracted with a lot of -- shopping.

Visit James Howard Kunstler's website.