the fiasco of suburbia

Panel discussion James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros (Part 1) Peak Oil News Clearinghouse


by Lakis Polycarpou

Car culture on the decline - June 1... 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 inertia 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.

LP: Jim and Nikos, in the wake of September 11th, the two of you co-wrote an essay in which you said “this terrible event expresses and underlying malaise with the built environment” and you predicted that “no new megatowers would be built”. Are you surprised by the continued effort to build the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan?

JHK: Well, I’m not personally surprised by it. I think that there are forces in our culture that perversely demanded it to be built. And when I wrote that article with Nikos, it was never a clear point in my mind that we would build absolutely nothing in terms of tall buildings again. In fact I would have probably, if pressed at the time, said sure, there’s going to be a residual kind of building of more of this stuff before we really have to reckon with the problem.

The problem really is more a logistical and practical problem in that we’re going to have a lot of trouble running skyscrapers in an energy-scarcer economy, particularly one that is challenged in natural gas resources, because we’re really coming to a crisis in North America with our supply; and you tend to get the natural gas on the continent that you’re on. Otherwise it’s much more expensive to bottle it up and move it in special ships and offload it, etc. etc. So a lot of this implies trouble with the electric grid and trouble with heating in the years ahead.

Now if you look at the history of the skyscraper, which is very short, and you actually look at how these things were serviced, it tells an interesting story. The first great skyscraper city, New York City, was originally basically a coal-based energy economy. And what you had at that time, in the period of let’s say between 1890 and 1920, is a lot of guys shoveling coal in basements in furnaces. And from that you get all the jokes about the ash-man in the cartoons in The New Yorker Magazine of the 1920s, of the guys throwing the ash-can down the alleyway. Those buildings were, for the most part, under 20 stories, except for a handful, like the Woolworth building, etc. Mostly what you had there was 15, 17 story buildings.

Then, beginning after the First World War, you start to get oil furnaces. And it’s much easier; you don’t have to have these massive deliveries of coal, and it’s much cleaner. The truck comes in, pumps a little oil into a reservoir, and you’re ready to go. You don’t have to have a guy shoveling. Or a whole shift, or crews of guys. So that’s simpler. And then, after World War II, finally you get natural gas piped all around the city. There’s no delivery as you get with oil; it’s just there all the time, coming through the pipeline. It’s all automatic. Well, this is all going to be coming to an end, because the natural gas supply in North America is very endangered, and is probably going to deplete very very steeply in the next ten years. We have no idea how we’re going to heat these buildings. We have no idea what we’re going to do about the electric grid because almost all the power stations we built after 1980 are natural gas fired, and it’s going to be a huge problem. And I maintain that the cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers are going to have an extra layer of liability as we move further into the 21st century.

LP: Do you think that those cities are worse off than cities that are mostly . . .

JHK: They’re going to have special set of liabilities. There was an article that was very misleading that was published in The New Yorker Magazine about three years ago, and what it said was that New York City was the most ecologically sound city because you could stack so many people on such a small building footprint, and therefore that was a superior living arrangement. Well, what we’re going to find out is that is that the stacks, the physical stacks that we’re employing, are probably going to fail us; we’re not going to be able to run them that way. And if we’re wise—which is unlikely—we’re going to realize that there’s an optimum and maximum height that we can expect from urban buildings, probably not in excess of seven stories.

LP: One of the issues that comes up is that people will say that in order to avoid sprawl, we need a higher degree of density in our cities.

JHK: Well you can get very high densities at seven stories. But it’s not necessary to have 20, 30, 100 story buildings. This is simply a holdover, from the previous era of cheap energy, and it represents now a form of grandiose thinking.

LP: Nikos, what do you think about . . . do you advocate the four-story limit that’s in the New Urbanist Charter?

NS: Well, approaching the topic scientifically, as I have done in my articles and books, there is an optimal size and shape for every complex system. Sprawl is just as unsustainable, because of energy wastage, as skyscrapers are. Going up vertically wastes energy the same as going out randomly. All this tremendous energy—James put his finger on it, it’s the energy, the problem is the energy. We don’t have the energy, and when the energy price doubles, triples, goes up to a hundred times or a thousand times what we pay today, sprawl will be unsustainable because it will cost too much. He’s also right in that the skyscrapers are totems.

So governments and corporations will pay exorbitant amounts of money to keep these skyscraper’s going. And they’re so extremely expensive. We have tried to make clear in our separate articles that a place like New York City sucks in energy, not only from a circle 100 miles around it but from many places in the world, it just sucks in that energy and those resources and wastes it, and consumes it. So New York City is not an efficient city. It’s efficient when you look at the geometry, superficially, like you see a movie, “oh, it’s efficient because it’s going up”. But no, what’s coming in? All the networks that are supplying New York City just reach out all over the place, and it’s always one way. And it’s coming in.

It’s very expensive, but I would not be surprised if we continue to build skyscrapers, because people are essentially stupid. And they’re willing to up the ante and pay more and more and more and more. Suppose we run out of oil tomorrow. Well, we’ll build nuclear power plants, which is a separate point . . . because as James says, with natural gas there’s only a finite amount in the United States. So, okay we’ll build nuclear power plants so we can produce enough electricity, it won’t surprise me if we waste this extremely expensive new electricity to maintain skyscrapers that are totally inefficient.

We have to fight also the very sharp contemporary architects who are manipulating the media, and talking about new, hundred story skyscrapers that have a few solar panels on them, thus they label them efficient, thus they get a label, a gold star on it, and they say “oh, this is certified efficient.” Well all that’s baloney, it’s just a ruse to maintain their own careers, and they will go down in history as being just as devious and disingenuous as Le Corbusier was. But for the moment, there are conferences and books written about sustainable giant skyscrapers; it’s just an old confidence trick.

LP: So I take it Jim, that you’re also not a fan of LEED certification?

JHK: Well, I put that in the category of what I call “blowing green smoke up our ass.” I saw a fantastic example of that last night. In a commercial break from Iowa caucus returns, there was a commercial from General Motors for a hydrogen car, and the story they were trying to put across was, “we’ve already invented this, and you can go out and buy it tomorrow.” Which is complete nonsense. We don’t have any hydrogen cars, we don’t have a fleet of hydrogen cars, and we certainly don’t have any network of hydrogen filling stations conceivably even on the drawing boards that would service these things. So the whole thing was just an exercise in unfortunately bending and twisting the reality of the American viewing public. And we do an awful lot of this.

There’s a larger thing here that I feel that I need to discuss. Unlike a lot of other people who are looking at the scene with the cities, and trying to make sense of this, I have a real contrarian view. I think that what we’re about to see is an epochal reversal of the 200 year old trend of populations moving from the small towns and the farms to the big cities. That is going to reverse, and we’re going to see big cities contract substantially, and people moving back to the smaller cities, the smaller towns, and indeed to an agricultural landscape that is going to require a lot more human attention to make productive.

What I think this is really about is the metroplexes and megacities that have come to seem normal to us in our time—I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that they’re going to sustain themselves and as Nikos says, it’s all a matter of scale. The energy resources of the future will not permit places like Orlando, or Houston, or indeed any major American city at it’s current scale to stay the way it is. Now, something will be in almost all of these places, because almost all of them occupy important sites. There are some that don’t. I’m thinking specifically of Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. These places will simply dry up and blow away, because they’ll have additional problems on top of energy problems, of not being able to produce food locally, etc. And water problems. But all the other major American metroplexes are going to contract, and it’s only a question of how disorderly this process is.

NS: Can I interject something? I want to defend the LEED certification in the following way: I think it’s a very positive response of the society, that represents the public conscience, to take these steps. What I’m criticizing is not the concept, what I’m criticizing is unscrupulous architects who see this as an opportunity to make even more profit and go through the steps of LEED certification, and then make a horrible building and they they say, “aha, it’s LEED certified, so I’m being a good architect.” That’s baloney.

JHK: Well I also have a problem with the idea that you can design a solar building that will be certified and yet it will have terrible urban characteristics.

LP: So, in dealing with these various issues, and maybe there’s no clear answer here, but what would you say, each of you, is the highest priority in going forward in terms of urbanism, energy, and this whole complex that we’ve been talking about?

JHK: My highest priority is that we have got to revive, repair and restore the American passenger rail system. There’s no project that would have a greater impact our our oil use; it would put tens of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs; the technology already exists and doesn’t have to be invented. In fact, we need to start at a less grandiose level than the people who are pimping for mag-lev and high-speed rail. We need to demonstrate that we can do it on the Bulgarian level, because we have a rain system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. We have to get up to that level first.

The fact that we’re not even discussing this in any forum whatsoever, politics, culture, whatever, shows how unserious we are as a culture. It’s dreadfully important. It’s important for an additional reason. We need to do a project as a nation that would demonstrate to ourselves that we’re capable of facing the difficulties that are coming down at us in the future. And this is one that is at least doable because most of the infrastructure is still lying out there rusting in the rain. And if we fail to do this, we’re going to find we’re in a situation where not only are we faced with an array of much more difficult problems all converging and ramifying each other, but we’re not going to have any confidence in facing these things.

LP: Do you think that when the energy situation gets bad enough we will go ahead and rebuild our rail system?

JHK: I don’t know if we’re going to be an orderly enough society and economy to do that. That’s the big question for me, is, is there a threshold point, or a tipping point, where the problems in your nation become so great that there’s simply not enough order left to direct the resources to solve a problem? And we’re approaching that point. And by the way, this goes to that point I made earlier, that we’re much more liable to see a delusional campaign to sustain suburbia and all of its motoring entitlements, and imagine all the resources that will go into that at the expense of rebuilding the passenger rain system, and the transit systems.

LP: How about you Nikos, do you have any highest priority?

NS: I support Christopher [Alexander’s] latest efforts in The Nature of Order. The last volume of The Nature of Order is a deeply spiritual work that talks about human beings' connection with the universe in almost religious terms. This is close to genuine religions, and totally opposite from pseudo-religions like the motorcar and the skyscraper totems.

I would like—and I don’t know how to do it—I would like people to regain the lost spirituality that human beings have, and that would solve many problems simultaneously. That would bring us into better contact with nature.

As soon as soon as we realize that our inner geometry—the genetic geometry of human beings—has a strong basis in the geometry of other living things—trees, plants, animals, ecosystem complexity—our geometry inside, our brain, or organs, our lungs, our circulatory system is the same geometry we see in trees and in ecosystems.

As soon as we realize that, then we can appreciate nature better, we can appreciate the need for preserving natural environments, which now we argue from the outside. We say, “natural environments are nice, it’s a good thing to do.” No, it’s not a good thing to do, it’s part of us, it’s like our fingers. We’d better take care of our fingers, because if we cut them off then we become less able to do things. That would lead us immediately to see the city as an extension of that geometry, and to appreciate the small-scale.

And then building on top of that, we could see, “oh, wait a minute, we have all these rail lines, lying around already, we could use them, all they need is a little upgrading.” And that would immediately increase . . . our transportation system. I think that’s a strong enough power—coming from a different direction, coming from outside urbanism, coming from a new spiritual understanding of human beings’ role in the universe—that would be strong enough to overcome the government’s inertia at doing this.

And then I would immediately jump in and support James. I would propose the Brazilian solution, where in these towns in Brazil people have come up with cheap ways . . . like in Curitiba, the mayor Jamie Lerner just put together a nice system of public transport; okay, it’s cheaper than the monorails. These are cheap ways that get tremendous payback.

But at the same time, I work a lot with Latin America. On the one hand, they’re developing phenomenal economical solutions that we can copy. And at the same time the adjoining city is copying the unsustainable solutions that we have built here. So one hand is creating, the other hand is breaking down, which is sad to see. But I agree with James that the solution lies in small-scale technology and low-cost technology, conserving what we have, like the rail lines.

In New York now there’s a new project, the Atlantic Yards project, where a world famous architect is proposing to tear up all the rail lines, and they’re going to do that, and someone is going to make billions of dollars. And in 30 years, people will say, “My God! We had rail lines here! They were entering New York City! Now we can’t possibly afford to put rail lines in. Where are we going to put them? We have to put them on the water.” Catastrophic short-sightedness to dig up existing rail lines.

LP: Do either of you have any final comments?

JHK: Well, I would advertise my forthcoming book, which is actually a novel, that takes place in America’s post-petroleum future. It’s coming out in March of 2008, an its title is World Made by Hand. The publisher is the Atlantic Monthly Press.

NS: I wish that people would look at the key players who are shaping the built environment, both on the architectural scale and the urban scale, and spend some time to notice a fundamental difference. I have a group of friends—Christopher, James, Andrés Duany, the New Urbanists, Leon Krier . . . we are a loose group of friends. If you notice what we do and how we operate, no one can fail to notice a respect for humanity, a value system; a moral system and a value system that respects something there, that respects some tradition, that respects nature. Altogether you have to dig through our writings and see that there’s a respect, and somehow a humility.

And then you go to the other side, to the star architects and the star urbanists who are fast destroying China, bulldozing down 16th century cities that have worked sustainably for decades, and putting up monstrosities of glass and steel and highways. I think you will not fail to see that these people are driven by ego and gain, gain at the expense really of running everything into the ground so they can make something. It is distasteful and ugly. I would like observers to note those differences. And then maybe they will appreciate the different types of products that the two groups propose for the future of the built environment.

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