Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:

  1. He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
  2. The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
  3. There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
  4. As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.

TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.

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