Well that’s better than specializing…

by Yule Heibel on May 1, 2007

I love Trevor Boddy’s articles, whether they appear in national newspapers or in magazines. He’s an independent and smart thinker who writes fearlessly about urbanism, architecture, cities. One of his latest articles is in the Toronto-based Globe & Mail newspaper, ‘Design guidelines are uniformly lame’ — a title that reworks a quote, which in turn represents probably one of the few “nuggets of wisdom” that Jim Kunstler could offer audiences at a recent shindig in Kelowna, BC. I do like how Boddy manages to use the one thing that Kunstler said that clearly made sense to dash most of the other things that Kunstler said, which are obviously boiler-plate but get swallowed hook line and sinker by the masses… This Boddy guy is brilliant, like I said.

Since the link will undoubtedly deteriorate over time, I’ll just quote the article in its entirety, shall I?

James Howard Kunstler, an American writer on cities, may be the continent’s leading suburbologist. With books like The Geography of Nowhere and last year’s The Long Emergency, Mr. Kunstler has spent the past two decades building a sustained critique of the postwar suburb, and the energy-wasting, sedentary, under-stimulated lifestyle it promotes.

Those opinions brought him to Kelowna last week as a speaker to the annual gathering of British Columbia’s urban planners.

Mr. Kunstler did not blanch from proffering opinions about the much a-building Okanagan city after a quick walk and driving tour with local urbanists.

“Why does downtown hardly have any buildings over two storeys?,” was one of his first questions, quickly followed by “Why is the architecture so bad?”

My answer to his first question was quite simple: Kelowna is a 20th-century city, shaped by the automobile and an orchard-based economy that decentralized jobs, residences and shopping, and never had much use for a downtown except as a place that Edwardians parked a few banks, cafes and doctor’s offices. Because it is younger than Calgary or Vancouver, Kelowna has had an automotive strip almost as long as it has been a city, today stretching north to Vernon and beyond in an astonishing agglomeration of franchise businesses, shopping malls and low-slung office parks. In bluntly functional terms, the strip is more Kelowna’s real heart than those few brick blocks near the floating bridge.

As for design, I am not sure if Kelowna’s architecture really is worse than other cities in the Interior, and there are counters to Mr. Kunstler’s sour initial impression of its new arts precinct, where a public library, art gallery and other civic structures belie the ambitions of British Columbia’s fastest-growing city.

There is a downside to this rapid growth, however.

Kelowna recently passed both Calgary and Toronto for the dour distinction of having Canada’s second-highest average housing prices, behind only Vancouver.

Mr. Kunstler is skeptical about the power of design panels — such as Vancouver’s — to improve the visual quality of boom-time urban life: “Design review boards are dysfunctional, and design guidelines are uniformly lame,” he says. “By designing-out chaos, they create sterile buildings.”

The Okanagan urban policy that most impressed Mr. Kunstler is British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve. Building on the theme of The Long Emergency, he sees a not-so-distant future where energy is so expensive that high rise towers will be abandoned for want of electricity to run their elevators, and when food will of necessity only be local: “The ALR is very prescient for what it could do for food security.”

Mr. Kunstler is right only to the degree that future diets will consist of grapes and wine. The orchards that made the Okanagan valley Canada’s fruit basket are disappearing at a depressing rate, replaced solely with vineyards and backyards. The backyards come from a whittling-away of land from the ALR, and the massive housing estates now rising on reserve lands owned by the Westbank Band. These vast new subdivisions are not subject to the ALR or other outside land use controls, resulting in 9,000 of its current on-reserve population of 9,500 now being non-native.

Mission Hill Estate’s hilltop winery, designed by Seattle architect Tom Kundig for proprietor Anthony von Mendl, is a Xanadu, looking when new like a medieval French or Italian chateau. But five years later it has come to resemble a theme mall or religious school, its visual presence dulled by being nearly surrounded by Westbank’s pervasive sprawl.

Mr. Kunstler was less forthcoming with ideas on how places like Kelowna can stop sprawling and start shaping dense and lively neighbourhoods. His plenary talk was full of easy slams at the empty walls and banal functionality of modern architecture, and displayed a few too many nostalgic snaps of antique piazzas in Europe. ‘Make it Siena’ Mr. Kuntsler seems to be saying, or at very least, ‘make it Saratoga Springs,’ the 19th-century spa and racecourse town in upstate New York he calls home.

This revealing Europhilia and simplistic promotion of resorts as models for cities is rife among the New Urbanists, for whom Mr. Kunstler has been a prominent spokesman. The New Urbanism has found little purchase in Canada, in part because the Greco-Roman nostalgia much evident in Mr. Kunstler’s slides does not jibe with our multi-cultural realities, but more importantly, because the densities and urban layouts it promotes have long been the norm in our nation.

The radical alternative down south is old hat here. This is both because Canada never let its downtowns depopulate or racially stratify and because we lack such public subsidies to sprawl as the American’s tax deductibility of mortgage interest payments or the interstate highway system.

Some of Mr. Kunstler’s most apt jeremiads are directed at the environmental movement and the use of landscaping to camouflage the banality of contemporary city-building. He chides the Sierra Club and their ilk for only seeing nature for its scenic and recreational possibilities: “If they really want the natural realm preserved, they should have spent the last four decades lobbying for smart urban growth.” He also cautioned Kelowna against camouflaging architectural errors with shrubbery.

“The New Urbanism is a temporary correction,” he says, one having an imminent expiry date, because much more radical efforts will soon have to be launched to deal with an energy-hungry future. No matter how addicted society has become to this urban version of fast food, “Suburban life is coming off the menu.”

Since I myself have such disdain (if not outright loathing) for much of what Kunstler has to say (and perhaps more to the point, how he says it), I’ll just add: New Yorbanism (by John Lumea). And if that’s not enough, do please look through these Jane Jacobs links for more: City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy; as well as this Portland State University project, jane jacobs in portland, which links to a film by that group, called Jane Jacobs: Parting Words (an absolute “must see!”); and last but not least an interview Jim Kunstler himself conducted with Ms Jacobs in 2000, Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler (done for Metropolis Magazine, but posted on Kunstler’s website), which goes on to a page 2, where she really gets some choice words in. Great interview.

JJ: … The notion — and I tell you this one even worries me that it extends into New Urbanism—the notion of the shopping center a valid kind of downtown. That’s taken over. Its very hard for architects of this generation even to think in terms of a downtown or a center that is owned by all different people, with different ideas.

JHK: We are starting to return to that particularly in the work of Victor Dover and Joe Kohl.

JJ: I don’t know them.

JHK: They are young guys who were trained at the University of Miami by Duany and Plater-Zyberk and they started their own firm about ten years ago. They have done two projects where they have taken dead malls and imposed a street and block plan over them and created codes so that the individual lots could be developed as buildings not just as a megaproject. So I think that’s definitely the direction the New Urbanists are going in. I think that we are leaving the age of the megaproject.

JJ: Here’s what I think is happening. I look at the, what happened at the end of Victorianism. Modernism really started with people getting infatuated with the idea of “it’s the twentieth century, is this suitable for the twentieth century.” This happened before the first world war and it wasn’t just the soldiers. You can see it happening if you read the Bloomsbury biographies. That was one of the first places it was happening. But it was a reaction to a great extent against Victorianism. There was so much that was repressive and stuffy. Victorian buildings were associated with it, and they were regarded as very ugly. Even when they weren’t ugly, people made them ugly. They were painted hideously. (…)

JJ: What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And Mumford fell for that and the whole “this is the twentieth century” thing. The notion that you could discard the old world and now make a new one. This is what was so bad about Modernism.


JHK: I’d like to turn to economics which is another principle area of your interest and I think perhaps one that is underemphasized in your career. I’m also interested in systems theories, but particularly the ones that address the great blunders of civilization. It seems to me that the American living arrangement, the “the fiasco of suburbia” as Leon Krier calls it, is approaching a kind of tipping point beyond which it might be difficult to carry on. I have a theory that we don’t have to run out of gasoline in order to throw places of Houston, Phoenix, San Jose, Miami, Atlanta into terrible trouble. All that’s necessary is a mild to moderate chronic instability in the world oil markets. it seems to me that we are sleepwalking into an economic and political trainwreck.

JJ: Well, I don’t’ know whether we will because of the oil markets or what. But I know things won’t go on as they are now. People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists—they are always wrong. I am not saying how it is going to go. But it is not going to go the same. This is a continuation of what I was actually saying about the revolt against Victorianism. Here comes a generation or two that just can’t stand what the previous generations did. And for whatever reasons it is they want to expunge it. And they are absolutely ruthless with the remnants of it. But I don’t think of it as an economic or political trainwreck. I think of it as one of these great generational upheavals that’s coming. And I think that part of the growing popularity of the New Urbanism is not simply because it is so rational, and not simply because people care so much about community or even understand it, or the relation of sprawl to the ruination of the natural world. But they just don’t like what is around. And they will be ruthless with it.

JHK: I wonder if it will take an economic shock to prompt the majority of American to really reconsider their living arrangements.

JJ: I don’t think it’s that rational, that this is unsustainable. I don’t think that’s the reason. Suddenly they can’t stand what the generations before did. There was no reason for Victorianism to be so reacted against in these terms.


JHK: You say that you are not theoretical or abstract. As a practical matter there is such a thing called the Hubbert Curve, the petroleum depletion curve that says that we will reach a peak of world oil production and then we will go down the slippery slope of having less and less oil, having oil that is harder to extract, or oil that is less economical to extract. And of course this is happening in different regions and different parts of the world. The two places in the world that basically saved our asses in the last twenty years were the north slope of Alaska and the North Sea oil fields. They are scheduled to reach peak production in the next year or so. After which their production will decline. And after that most of the oil in the world will be produced by people who hate us. How does that work for us economically?

JJ: Well, you see all my life I have been hearing that the oil was going to run out. It never happens. They keep discovering new oil fields. The world is apparently floating in oil fields.

JHK: Well, it’s possible that my proposition is a fallacy. But what if it’s not?

JJ: I basically don’t think that the way we do things is that dependent on one resource, such as oil. There can be different kinds of engines for cars. I think that solar heating, wind heating can substitute for a lot of uses for oil. I’d like to see those things happen because they are more sustainable in any case. But I do not think that running out of oil is not going to bother us that much. I think we have got to be rescued by something or we really are going down a slippery slope.

JHK: If its not petroleum then what is it that is putting us in peril?

JJ: I don’t think probably any one thing. Nothing is so clear in history that is it happens for any one thing. It seems that a lot of things come together to make great changes. And I think that one of the things is a reaction against Modernism in this case and everything associated with it

JHK: But we are stuck with all this stuff?

JJ: Yes now that’s the next thing. I do not think that we are to be saved by new developments done to New Urbanist principles. That’s all of the good and I am very glad that New Urbanists are educating America. I think that when this takes hold and when enough of the old regulations can be gotten out of the way—which is what is holding things up, that there is going to be some great period of infilling. And a lot of that will be make-shift and messy and it won’t measure up to New Urbanist ideas of design—but it will measure up to a lot of their other philosophy. And in fact if there isn’t a lot of this popular and make-shift infilling, the suburbs will never get corrected. It’s only going to happen that way. And I think that it will happen that way.

JHK: I have the greatest admiration for the New Urbanists. The hardest work for them to do is the urban infill.

And here we have to stop and sound a great big “guh-roh-ahn!” I’m American (among other things), but here’s where Kunstler’s American chauvinism really rubs me the wrong way. So some American cities aren’t “doing infill” correctly — that doesn’t mean that it’s a universal problem. In my city, infill is the norm.

Here’s Jane Jacobs again, for a last word:

JJ: There are still an awful lot of intelligent, clever constructive Americans and they are still doing clever constructive things. Is it more necessary to be able to design computers or is more necessary to be able to manufacture computers. I think that it is necessary to do both. I think it is fatal to specialize. And all kinds of things show us that and that the more diverse we are in what we can do the better. But I don’t think that you can dispose of the constructive and inventive things that America is doing—and say oh we aren’t doing anything anymore and we are living off of what the poor Chinese do. It is more complicated than that. There is the example of Detroit which you noticed yourself was once a very prosperous and diverse city. And look what happened when it just specialized on automobiles. Look at Manchester when it specialized in those dark satanic mills, when it specialized in textiles. It was supposed to be the city of the future.

JHK: We have an awful lot of places in America that don’t specialize in anything anymore and don’t produce anything in particular anymore.

JJ: Well that’s better than specializing.


melanie May 18, 2007 at 8:29 am

I got your latest post on my RSS feed, but it doesn’t show up when I come over here to your blog????

yulelog May 18, 2007 at 11:19 am

Do you mean the May 17 one? That’s strange… I’ll ask around and see if anyone else has that problem. I did revise it and had some internet connection hiccups while I was revising. Maybe I’m looking at a cached version? But I can see it fine. I’ll check and if I figure out an answer, I’ll let you know! Thanks, Melanie.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: