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.

Suburbs, “mutilated urbanism,” and “nature band-aids”

James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” includes a discussion of the role of “nature” in suburbia. This excerpt starts at about 10:15 into the talk:

Then because the relationship between the retail is destroyed, we pop a handicapped ramp on that, and then to make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it.

I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower-beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know, that’s not good enough. We have to do good buildings.

(photo: two pictures of tree lined pedestrian paths, caption: “Role of ‘Green’ In City Center Is Formal”)

The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it. To spatially denote the pedestrian realm, to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way, to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings and to create a ceiling -a vaulted ceiling- over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees. They’re not supposed to be a cartoon of the north woods, they’re not supposed to be a set for The Last of the Mohicans. You know, one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not gonna cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.

(new photo, unshown on screen)

Here you see on a small scale- the mother-ship has landed, R2D2 and CP3O (sic) have stepped out to test the bark mulch to see if they can inhabit this planet.

This last paragraph, in particular, always gets me: comparing two lonely bushes stranded in a suburban streetscape to aliens is funny.

But, his larger point holds: suburban settings often use nature as a possible enhancement and often afterthought rather than a fundamental feature of the space. Why save original trees when you can just plant new ones later? If there is not enough greenery, add a flower bed and some bushes. Make sure the suburban yards are always lush and green (even if this does not really happen in nature). Put in some parks here and there so people can experience wildlife displaced from other settings.

The suburban nature millions of Americans see on a daily basis is not the real nature that was once in these locations (though you would have to go back quite a ways before any human intervention and this is important to remember) or that could be there given different choices by local officials, developers, and residents.

US just a “great post World War II McMansion”

I’ve seen McMansions compared to many things but not the whole United States as James Howard Kunstler argues:

That is, first of all, a place of far less influence on everybody else, in a new era of desperate struggle to remain modern. That fading modern world is the house that America built, the great post World War II McMansion stuffed with dubious luxuries in a Las Vegas of the collective mind. History’s bank has foreclosed on it, and all the nations and people of the world have been told to make new arrangements for daily life. The U.S. wants everybody to stay put and act as if nothing has changed.

Therefore, change will be forced on the U.S. It will take the form of things breaking and not getting fixed. Unfortunately, America furnished its part of the house with stapled-together crap designed to look better than it really was. We like to keep the blinds drawn now so as not to see it all coming apart…

Even the idle chatter about American Dreaming has faded out lately, because too much has happened to families and individuals to demonstrate that people need more than dreams and wishes to make things happen. It’s kind of a relief to not have to listen to those inane exhortations anymore, especially the idiotic shrieking that, “We’re No. 1!”

Others have got our number now. They are going their own way whether we like it or not. The Russians and the Chinese. The voters in Europe. The moiling masses of Arabia and its outlands. The generals in Thailand. Too bad the people of Main Street U.S.A. don’t want to do anything but sit on their hands waiting for the rafters to tumble down. My guess is that nothing will bestir us until we wake up one morning surrounded by rubble and dust. By then, America will be a salvage operation.

This is a typical “America is in decline and should wake up piece” with an interesting metaphor: the country is like a badly made, falling-apart McMansion that once glittered but now is exposed as an inadequate dwelling. Such a comparison does not come as a surprise from Kunstler who has criticized suburban sprawl for decades and would likely agree with Thomas Frank’s recent piece on giving away the American farm for a limited number of McMansions.

But, Kunstler doesn’t go further and then give us the more positive comparison. Should America be more like a stately renovated Victorian with its ornamental charms? Should we be like the pragmatic ranch or split-level home with a can-do spirit? Should we prefer modernist homes with sleek lines and the notion of the future? Or, perhaps we should all be living in a grittier or refurbished (depending on your income) mixed-use block in a denser urban area. What kind of house do we want America to be moving forward?

Which drives McMansions: supply or demand?

Thomas Frank argued last week that America has a system that enables McMansions but another commentator suggests McMansions reflect the desires of Americans:

Still, it fascinates — are not horror films and comedies blockbusters too? — and, lest we snark too much, in this case on McMansions, let us remember these objects reflect consumers’ demand — our collective taste — not the other way around.

And just as soon as I try and boast of some superlative insight or immunity to things and stuff myself, I will have thrown a stone at a glass house — even if it is a two-story Palladian window, even if it’s draped in Pepto-mauve and installed over an entry door — and I bet a crumpled buck you will have too. I say we observe, look for the humor reflected therein (it’s there) and continue to try and learn from our own selves.

Classic question: do Americans buy McMansions because the system supplies them and makes them possible or do they exist because the demand is there from American residents?

This question is not a new one in the field of studying suburbs. On one hand, some argue that suburbs (and McMansions by proxy) exist because this is what Americans want. Joel Kotkin argues that Americans vote with their feet and when given the opportunity, will tend to choose more space and freedom in the suburbs (and the Sunbelt). Jon Teaford says in his book The American Suburb: The Basics that Americans tend to desire more local control and space to be individuals, traits that work well in suburbs. In contrast, some would argue the other side. Suburbs had to be sold to Americans; compare this to European desires to be closer to the central city. Suburbs were constructed by developers who wanted to make money and had to drum up demand. Frank’s argument echoes those of James Howard Kunstler who suggests the suburbs are a subsidized project – often through government action and money – that hollowed out our cities.

As a sociologist, I would argue both sides of the equation are present though we tend to emphasize the demand side in American discourse without realizing how the supply side is shaped. Sure, some Americans may want McMansions but where do these desires come from? Why would they choose to spend their money on a certain kind of large home rather than buying a smaller place in a more urban area or spending more on other luxury goods? Take the example of highways: Americans did take to the automobile quickly but major systems of roads and highways also arose in part because of lobbying efforts from motorist and industry groups, governments decided to spend relatively more money on roads than mass transit, and certain restrictions made it difficult for streetcars and other mass transit to compete (see Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontiers for more details). Consumer desires don’t simply come out of nowhere; they are shaped by social forces.

Watch out for the “stroad,” the bad street/road hybrid

A former street engineer provides warnings about the “stroad” and the havoc it wreaks on the landscape:

“The STROAD design — a street/road hybrid — is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.”

Marohn says he coined the term in 2011 to wake up the people who design America’s roads. “I really was writing it as a way to push back at the engineering profession and get my fellow engineers to think about the bizarre things they’re building,” says Marohn. That was why he initially wrote the word in that annoying all-cap style, which he eventually dropped. “I figured engineers would read it and wonder, what was it an acronym for?” he says, laughing.

While Marohn came up with the neologism partly in a spirit of fun, he considers stroads a deadly serious problem. Not only are they dangerous and aesthetically repugnant, he argues that they are economically destructive as well. They don’t provide the swift, efficient mobility that is the greatest economic benefit of a good road, and they simultaneously fail to deliver the enduring value of a good street — which fosters community, good architecture, and financial resilience at the lowest possible cost…

Instead, stroads create hideous, inefficient, and disposable environments that quickly lose value.

These are many of the four to six-lane commercial thoroughfares that dominate American cities, at least the less dense parts, and suburbs. These roads are lined fast food restaurants, big box stores, car dealers, gas stations, offices, and big signs that try to catch your attention as you drive by. One twist that I like here is the suggestion that this is not necessarily good for cars either because of all the traffic lights and congestion.

Two places where I have seen depictions of such stroads:

1. I recently showed the documentary Jesus Camp in class and the film features several scenes of such roads. The roads don’t look very attractive – lots of cars and signs – and they are sort of stand-ins for everyday Americana. It is one thing to see it in a film and another to realize that you drive past this every day. But, as the film suggests, America is filled with these scenes and they all kind of look similar.

2. James Howard Kuntsler, a well-known critic of sprawl, makes a note of such roads. In different contexts, he points out the absurdity of trying to be a pedestrian on such a road that is clearly meant for cars (imagine crossing all those lanes at a traffic light or walking through all of the drives in and out of business) as well as the trivial amount of “nature” that planners try to add in to make it all look better. All together, these roads just encourage sprawl.

What is the alternative to this? In a perfect world, perhaps it is connecting denser downtowns and neighborhoods with pedestrian friendly streets (nodes) with a system of faster roads or mass transit (connections between the nodes).

Quick Review: Radiant City

I’m always on the lookout for movies having to do with suburbia. I recently ran across Radiant City at a local library and found that it had earned some recognition at film festivals (including the 2006 Toronto Film Festival). Here are my thoughts on this 2006 “mockumentary” set in the suburbs of Calgary:

1.If you have read any critiques about suburbia, you are likely to see it discussed in this film: sprawl, too many cars that everyone is dependent on, lack of community where no one knows their neighbors, too much private space and not enough public space, no activities for teenagers, a lack of mass transit, health issues (obesity), a lack of walkability, big box stores, wasted land, the solution of New Urbanism, and on and on.

1a. A number of anti-sprawl experts (or “stars”) are featured including James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany.

1b. There are a number of “statistical interludes” throughout the film that deliver facts about the horrors of suburbia.

2. The film tries to set up fictional family storylines to follow. I didn’t find any of these to be compelling as it seemed like the characters were simply there to break up the facts of the documentary. One of the storylines, of a father who is acting in a satirical musical about suburbia, is particularly obvious.

3. The many shots of the Evergreen neighborhood outside of Calgary are both beautiful and jarring. The homes featured in the films are on the edges of suburban development so there are plenty of open fields (mostly dirt), empty lots filled with construction equipment, single-family homes built very close to each other, concrete sounds barriers and highways that cut off views and walking, and beautiful skies (we are told at one point that the mountains are off in the distance – you could see them if the guy next door would open his front door so you could see through his house).

Overall: you can find the same critiques in many other places. I don’t think the fictional storylines added much as the main point seemed to be the commentary of the experts and the statistics that are meant to get viewers to question their assumptions about suburban living. If you already are opposed to sprawl and suburbs, your likely to find this film preaching right to you.

(This film was well-received by a limited number of critics at RottenTomatoes.com: the movie is 93% fresh with 14 out of 15 positive reviews.)