A few months ago, I conducted a panel discussion with urban theorists James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros for the magazine Next American City. Because of space limitations, the magazine was unable to publish the full interview. Since some very interesting portions of the discussion were cut, I thought it would be worthwhile to present the unexcerpted piece here. Because it’s long, I’m going to post in two parts. The original article can be found at: Respect for the Human Scale.
James Howard Kunstler has written numerous books about urbanism and “the fiasco of suburbia”, including The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind. In his most recent book, The Long Emergency, Kunstler explored the shocking implications of what the imminent decline of oil and natural gas imply for the American way of life. His recently released novel, The World Made by Hand, is set in a small upstate New York town in a not-too-distant “post-petroleum” future—a place where highways and suburbs have been abandoned and life has become “extremely local.”
Nikos Salingaros is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and a renowned urban theorist. The author of Principals of Urban Structure and A Theory of Architecture, Salingaros links mathematical, fractal and network theory to urban planning and architecture. Over the years he has been a close collaborator with numerous noted architects and urban planners, including Christopher Alexander, Andrés Duany, Leon Krier and others. Among his admirers is Charles, Prince of Wales, who has called Salingaros’ work “provocative” and “historically important.”
LP: I would like to start with a quote. Writing 50 years ago on the inauguration of the Interstate Highway System, Lewis Mumford commented that “the current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation, but on the religion of the motorcar; and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism.”
Half a century later the religion of the motorcar is, if anything, stronger than ever. Is there any hope of changing course in the coming years, or are we doomed to repeat the auto-centered planning mistakes of recent decades? Is there any way for healthy cities to make peace with the automobile, or must it be banished from them altogether?
JHK: First of all, I don’t think that we’re going to have to make a whole lot of further accommodations to the automobile. I’m serenely convinced that the automobile is going to be a diminishing presence in our lives. We’re not going to come up with any “miracle” or “rescue remedy” for the petroleum scarcity problem.
I think you’re going to see an interesting political problem arise, where motoring simply becomes an elite activity again, and will be greatly resented by the masses of Americans. There are all kinds of problems including unanticipated ones.
Now that’s the second half of the Mumford question. The first half has a lot to do with what I call the “psychology of previous investment.” The investment we’ve made now in the happy motoring life is so enormous, that no matter what reality is telling us about it, we’re probably going to see a big campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs. I maintain that this will probably work out as a gigantic exercise in futility and a further waste of our remaining resources. We’re probably going to campaign to keep suburbia going, but it’s not going to pay off for us, and it’s really basically a waste of our time and our resources.
LP: Would it be correct to say that it’s too late to make the necessary changes?
JHK: From my point of view, I think the mistake a lot of observers and commentators make is in assuming that there’s some sort of a smooth transition between where we’re at now and where we’re going. I maintain that there’s actually a lot of noise in the system, and what we’re faced with is some sort of a discontinuity that is liable to be rather sharp and produce a lot of disorder.
LP: So it’s not that you think it’s impossible to run a modern society on much less energy, with maybe healthier city planning, it’s just that we’re not going to do it in time?
JHK: Well, no, I think I’d go further and say that most of the thinking about alternative energy solutions is delusional. We’re not going to run Walmart and the Interstate Highway System or Walt Disney World on any combination of the alternatives that are in play right now, or even close to it. We’re going to have to make very different arrangements, and we’re simply not psychologically prepared for that reality.
LP: Nikos, where do you stand on the issue of peak oil and the depletion of energy?
NS: Yes, we’ll I’m speechless because James has given such a succinct answer to these things. I want to pick up on his point on investment and the societal blindness that follows this investment. The anthropologist Jerrod Diamond writes about that [in his book Collapse]. Civilizations can see the coming collapse, they just cannot bring themselves to make any change, there’s just so much inirtia in the system that they just go toward the collapse. Why’d they die? It doesn’t sneak up on them.
Now, going back to the first part of the question about religion, I have written many articles on the “pseudo-religious” aspect of architecture. People get infatuated with ideas, and it becomes a religion for them. And the automobile is really more than a utility, like a can opener. It has occupied such a central place in the American psyche and now the world psyche; it offers the insulating cocoon, and the same time total perceived liberty of communication between point A and point B in the continental United States.
And even those who realize the delusion, it still takes them two and half hours to drive across the city because terrible traffic. So it’s not so easy. But even so . . . we stick to the ideal, and that where the religion comes in; there is a dogma: the automobile makes you free to go anywhere you want at any time. In the middle of the night you can go to Walmart to shop, at 4 a.m., and buy a consumer toy that will break down in six months.
And the automobile insulates you from all the other people. Our society is spending of billions of dollars piping information into our houses and therefore into our minds about a hostile society . . . it’s them, everyone outside, they’re nasty, they’re gonna kill us. So they force us to retreat to our little enclave in suburbia, and our car is our cocoon, so we enter our car to navigate through the hostile territory, along with everyone else. We don’t realize that we are them. Like Pogo used to say, “the enemy is us.” But there’s been such a massive brainwashing over the decades about the perceived freedom and protection that the car give us.
LP: Is there a connection you can see between the religion of the automobile and the religion and the religion of modern architecture?
NS: Well, there is a tentative link, because the arch-destroyer of cities, [the famous architect and urban planner] Le Corbusier, had the latest sports cars of the 1920s always parked inside of his buildings; or he would draw a car in front of his buildings. So in his mind, modern architecture was linked with the automobile. And all his urban megalomaniac plans have the superhighway filled with racing cars. A few of them. I think Le Corbusier vastly underestimated the number cars you would need. So in all his drawings you see sports cars cruising on free highways.
LP: It kind of makes you wonder what he would think if he saw the world that we’ve built now.
NS: Well, he saw the world then, and he despised the world, and he wanted to destroy the world that we know and love. He was not only a megalomaniac, but a sadistic psychopath.
LP: To go back on something you were saying—Jim, you can jump in on this also—about the role of investment: Going back to Mumford, one of his criticisms of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was that she blamed urban planners for the problems of American cities without addressing larger, more destructive forces at work. By the same token, Christopher Alexander has suggested that the New Urbanism has failed, in part, for a similar reason: for being too accommodating to the pressures of banks and developers at the expense of a more step-by-step process to create truly living cities.
JHK: Well this is an interesting question for me, because I went up to Toronto and interviewed Jane Jacobs at length in the last couple of years of her life, and I found it very hard to direct her attention to the issue of the suburban fiasco per se. She just kept on deflecting my questions about it.
You know, Mumford and Jacobs had quite a rivalry, in their time, and Mumford supported Jacobs very strongly in the beginning, and then turned on her, rather viciously. And I’m not sure quite what that was about.
Mumford was in a strange position because he identified very clearly the pernicious forces that were in motion. But unfortunately he was writing about them even before they attained their apogee of influence in our culture. What we see in the suburban paradigm really is a self-organizing, emergent structure that’s responding to the conditions and circumstances of a particular time and place, namely, the mid-twentieth century, and the circumstance of abundant, cheap oil, which the United States possessed in spades. So we set out on this project . . . and it also coincided with some other things. The end of the Second World War, and in effect the Great Depression, or the extension of the Great Depression through the hardships of war. I’ve always maintained that suburbia was sort of a present that we gave ourselves for having triumphed against those combined adversities.
Now the New Urbanism has been in a strange situation. I think that the real triumph of the New Urbanism in the last 15 years has been the retrieval of vital information and principal that was thrown in the garbage can by two previous generations of architects and urban planners and municipal officials—you know, the whole complex of people who support the ideology.
So the New Urbanists dove into the dumpster of history and very valiantly retrieved this vital information and principal. That was their great achievement. Not necessarily the building of the 400 acre so-called “New Towns,” although there was a lot about them to admire. But I think we’re going to view that particular aspect of their work as transitional.
I agree with the implication in your question that to a certain degree the New Urbanists sold out, or became hostage to the methods of the production home-builders of our time, in order to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Now that the housing bubble is upon us, and the production home-builders are going down, perhaps for good, my own opinion is we’re not going to be building any more suburban fabric at all. Including New Urbanist TNDs [Traditional Neighborhood Developments].
All the action, if there is any action in the years ahead, in my opinion, is going to be in retrofitting the existing towns and small cities. Not the suburbs. I don’t think the suburbs are really salvageable, myself. And I think the increment of development is going to be much smaller than what the New Urbanists are used to, because they could avail themselves of this tremendous finance that was around, and do these 400 acre megaprojects. But we’re going to be a far less affluent society when this economic shakeout is over, and we’re going to have far fewer investment resources.
LP: So in some ways it’s kind of a moot point because even the New Urbanists are not going to be able to develop things on such a large scale . . .
JHK: Well, certainly not the kind of things that were controversial, like the TNDs located in far-off suburbs. We will view that as a transitional form. A form that, for all of its good intentions, did not really anticipate the true catastrophe of the peak oil situation. You know there was an assumption with that all the way that they were going to make a partnership, a grand compromise with the needs of the motoring community, and in fact it was only toward the tail end—and I know this for a fact because I know these guys who started the movement. Guys like Andrés Duany became aware rather late in the game that there was this petroleum problem lurking in the background. Andrés has certainly made the adjustment, but a lot of his colleagues have not.
LP: What do you think about this issue Nikos? I know you have a close working relationship with Christopher Alexander. What do you think of a step by step process versus the developer, banker-led movement?
NS: There are many important issues on the table with this question. Of course Christopher, being the great genius that he is, is always right. But it’s not necessarily always the best way to implement things. And going back to the Jane Jacobs/Lewis Mumford debate, there is a fundamental misunderstanding, in that change comes from great forces that push on our society. And the forces that push on our society are capital and gain.
This is where the brilliance of our friends the New Urbanists has come in, by tapping these forces to create new traditional developments. I mean, Andrés Duany, Stefanos Polyzoides and Peter Calthorpe tapped into this. And, okay, Christopher is right when he says they sacrificed some of the important elements of urbanism, but they made up for it with enormous successes. I think it’s a success story of our era. The fact that we have this compromise, new traditional development that is adopted by people who otherwise used to build sprawl and megatowers.
JHK: That’s a good point, by the way.
NS: And this is absolutely an incredible success. Okay, Christopher is right, he says they have compromised on many issues. Okay, yeah, sure they’ve compromised, but on the other hand today, all over the world there are new traditional developments going up, by people who do not understand urbanism, but they have Duany’s code-book. And they’re applying it mindlessly, but it produces fairly good results. Not the greatest, but fairly good results. And if this impetus could be continued, it could regenerate many regions of cities.
Now, I have to interrupt myself and say that Andrés Duany has told me on many occasions that he would love to redo some of the central parts of the cities. It’s just such a nightmare of bureaucracy that only in one or two places in his whole career has he been able to do it. He just usually looks at the obstacles and gives up, and goes outside the city to where a single developer owns the and land and can bend the zoning to build what Andrés would like. Inside the city it’s a bureaucratic nightmare, and that’s the reason why haven’t seen this applied to the interior of our cities. So James is right, this has not been done so far, but there’s no reason why we cannot then turn to the inside of our cities. But it’s a legislative and government problem.
LP: You worked on the Athens Charter . . . do you have any comments on that?. . .
NS: Well, there are two Athens charters. The original one written by Le Corbusier was a blueprint to destroy cities. The new Athens Charter was put together by a group of European urbanists who try to look at a more reasonable “network” view of society. That’s an excellent document, but people in the United States don’t know anything about it.
LP: That’s another question I wanted to ask you . . . sometimes we have in this country an American-centered focus. In your book on urbanism you mention that there are things we can even learn from shanty-towns that grow organically . . .not that we want to adopt everything there . . .
NS: Well, yeah, the organic growth is Christopher’s bottom-up, step-by-step principle, in practice. Not because those people apply Christopher’s ideas; they don’t know Christopher’s ideas, most of them cannot read. But this is the way that structure evolves and is put together. And human beings without any training will go through this extremely sophisticated, scientific procedure and put together the shanty-towns. I have managed to get Andrés Duany interested, and we wrote a lengthy paper on social housing in South America, where we apply Christopher’s ideas with a combination of a top-down intervention in order to propose a better model for social housing.
LP: So we can learn something from the developing world?
NS: Oh, we learn the most fundamental things about human scale. We so-called civilized or more technological people have lost the human scale. And if we only learn that single thing it would transform our cities overnight. Respect for the human scale. Which includes pedestrian links. But more than that, it’s the human scale, the range of human scales, from the size of a finger to the size of the head, to the size of a human body, to the distance of a short walk.
LP: That’s what you’ve called “fractal”.
NS: Right, right. A fractal hierarchy of scales which we have eliminated from our cities. If we can reintroduce them in the physical structure and then accommodate them in the physical structure to human beings, who want to walk three meters, and who want to lie against a low wall, sit on a low wall, sit on a bench. Now we eliminate them, because we think, “this place will be invaded by vagrants.”
Many of the solutions that I have proposed in my writings and that Christopher has proposed, we know, we have old books from the 1930s full of them. But nobody pays any attention to them.
You know, something happened with the departments of urbanism in our major universities. They were closed down and moved into the sociology department, and merged with urban crime and urban social ills. And that tells you something: that our society looks at urbanism as in terms of just drug dealing and homeless people, and has forgotten the geometry of urbanism. And we—I mean our friends, James, Andrés, Christopher—all talk about geometry. It’s about geometry. Okay there are social problems, but those are separate problems. We should not sacrifice our cities and our children’s futures to be able to enjoy urban life just because of crime. Crime has always existed. And it should not displace the whole concept of urbanism.
LP: Well, it may or may not be even true that suburbanization decreases crime anyway . . . although, maybe it makes people, as you said, more secure, more insulated.
NS: It gives the impression of vastly improved security.
(part 2 of the interview will be published next week)