Lawless Prophet: James Howard Kunstler and the New Urbanist Critique of American Sprawl

The Israelites that we meet in scripture are a blessed, albeit forgetful, people. In their attempts to carve out a life for themselves in an increasingly pluralistic culture, they often forgot that their primary identity came from the covenant made between their God and themselves.
June 1 st 2004

The Israelites that we meet in scripture are a blessed, albeit forgetful, people. In their attempts to carve out a life for themselves in an increasingly pluralistic culture, they often forgot that their primary identity came from the covenant made between their God and themselves. Moreover, the Israelites tended to forget their obligation to the law, which bound them to this covenant. The role of the prophet emerged, to some degree, as an antidote to this forgetfulness. The prophets reminded the Israelites of the foundational truths that they had forgotten in their headlong pursuit of something better than they had been given.

We Americans are similarly a blessed, albeit forgetful, people. In our pursuit of mass consumption and commodious leisure among an increasingly prosperous and mobile culture, we have forgotten some important truths that used to shape our national identity. We seem to have forgotten the importance of the public realm to our democratic aspirations, and we have forgotten the essential role that the neighbourhood plays in the shaping of human community. We have forgotten the connections that used to link us spatially with our neighbours and chronologically with our past.

Before the Second World War, there were no retirement homes because a person could fully participate in our society without the necessity of operating an automobile. In most neighbourhoods, grocery stores, laundromats, barbers, and coffee shops were all within walking distance of homes. There were no "soccer moms" because ball fields were distributed among the neighbourhoods of a community, and kids could walk to them. Public spaces (parks, plazas, squares, and sidewalks) used to have priority in commercial and residential developments and gave a sense of harmony and order to distinct areas. Young and old used to enjoy informal contact in non-commercial public spaces because there were interesting places to walk and sidewalks upon which they could walk.

We've forgotten these things because we have spared no expense and made every allowance for the automobile and its seductive promise of mobility, power, and freedom. We've seen the promise of auto utopia unravel before us in the form of an endless sprawl of tract home developments, mega stores, and subdivisions. But we've been at a loss as to how to escape this decline because we have forgotten so much about how we used to build community on a human scale. We've settled for a kind of resigned acceptance of this dismal trajectory.

Into this cultural impasse, James Howard Kunstler has emerged as a kind of American prophet reminding us of things long forgotten. In his trilogy ( The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind), Kunstler has established himself as an important voice of resistance against this significant threat to the future of our common life. He is a stinging critic of the American obsession with mobility and private consumption and an ardent defender of the almost forgotten public realm.

In his work, Kunstler narrates the history of our decline from our Puritan forefathers (who understood the importance of the public realm in their meeting houses and had a healthy respect for limits) to modern Los Angeles with its "sprawling low-density single family house monoculture communities, with its long commutes, and addiction to gas"( Geography of Nowhere, 213). This decline came about as a result of the natural outgrowth of foundational values combined with some accidents of history. Because so many of the people who settled in this country did so as a form of escape from some kind of persecution or stifling classism, the instinct for escape became embedded into our national psyche. The invention of the automobile and its mass production accelerated these trends and profoundly affected the shape of our built environment. It allowed people to escape from one another to a degree that had never before been possible.

Another fundamental influence, according to Kunstler, was the historical circumstance of rapid settlement which took place in the midst of the industrial revolution. This combination of forces tended to make us think of land as "first and foremost a commodity for capital gain" (26) rather than as a public trust. The ensuing mentality of absolute property rights combined with our easy mobility has led to our increasing tendency to build residential, commercial, and even public buildings that are ugly, cheap, and disconnected with their contexts. It is now commonplace in this country, according to Kunstler, to build places not worth caring about.

One aspect of this issue that makes viable solutions seem daunting is that true examples of urban beauty and grace are growing increasingly rare. So many people have grown up in ugly, standardized, and degrading environments that the American public is losing it's ability to articulate what is missing. Addressing this aspect of the problem, Kunstler attempts to reintroduce long lost notions into the national conversation—notions such as the public realm, civic art, and beauty as an objective value. With a clearer understanding of these fundamental ideas, we can relearn how to build enjoyable and enriching environments for ourselves. Without these basic tools, our civilization literally cannot be maintained.

Unwilling to give up on the American public, Kunstler concedes that we haven't completely lost our desire for something better than the mess we have built in the last century. In the not-too-distant past, we used to build real neighbourhoods and real towns, and the formula was pretty simple. It was "mixed use, mixed income, apartments and offices over the stores, moderate density, scaled to pedestrians, vehicles permitted but not allowed to dominate, buildings detailed with care, and built to last" ( Home from Nowhere, 37). Kunstler finds solace in the fact that we are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the relatively recent suburban experiment, as evidenced in our nostalgia for the earlier model.

Kunstler also highlights some hopeful reform movements (among architects, developers, planners, and government workers) that have demonstrated the truths he has been advocating. Most prominent among these movements is the New Urbanism, which he holds out as our best hope for a more satisfying future.

The New Urbanists have helped to demonstrate how the real barrier to constructing a quality built environment is our zoning codes. The essential problem is not bad architects, greedy developers, or short-sighted consumers—although these all are culpable to some extent. Each of these players is constrained by a more pervasive power. According to the New Urbanists, the problem is zoning codes that make it illegal to build anything but suburban tract homes and strip malls and practically legislate sprawl. New Urbanism represents hope because in the financial successes of its projects, Kunstler sees a confirmation of his hope that the American public really does want something better.

In his most recent work, Kunstler widens his scope beyond the American scene and develops the notion that the ability to create quality urban environments is an important litmus test for a civilization. He does this through a series of eight case studies ranging from Atlanta, "this giant hairball of a thirteen-county demolition derby" ( City in Mind, 43), to Paris, which embodies the difference between a "city worth caring about and one that is not" (40). Each of the case studies narrates an interesting story in its own right but also teaches something universal about those things that make a city work as opposed to things that doom certain cities to failure.

One great benefit of this most recent work is that it helps to trace with greater clarity some of the enduring prejudices that beset our contemporary American culture as well as provide a more concrete hope for what might redeem us. Kunstler's analysis of London demonstrates how the English aristocracy's retreat to rural settings has imbedded an anti-urban bias in the American psyche. From the English, we have learned to give up on the city as a redeemable form of existence and to seek solace only in nature. Much of our clamouring for abstract notions of open space rather than the construction of meaningful urban space can be traced to this heritage.

In his discussion of Rome, Kunstler helps us to understand that classical is not a style but a carefully developed tradition of noble aspiration constructed on a human scale. He helps us to recover the idea of the classical from the realm of the dusty museum attraction:

[the classical is] mankind's cultural transmission wire, our method for conveying models of excellence from the past to the present time and into the future. The classical germ will be self-evidently understood as the thing that makes it possible to live in a confident present suspended between memory and hope. (193)

Perhaps what is most striking in Kunstler's romp through the history of urban dwelling is the inescapable conclusion that it is indeed possible for ordinary humans to build places of beauty and grace. Such places are possible because they have been developed before in the context of societies that were economically far poorer and technologically far less advanced than we are in our contemporary American context.

Kunstler is not the only writer pointing out the limitations of our postwar suburban experiment. Much of his material is affirmed by other writers, such as Jane Jacobs, Kenneth Jackson, and the husband and wife team of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany. But what sets Kunstler apart as the essential voice of the New Urbanism is his matchless rhetorical style. His artist's eye for the pathetic details of the American landscape provides an endless supply of fodder for an acerbic wit and ammunition for his frequent on-target hyperbole. He has the unique ability to take over-familiar scenes from our everyday life and allow us to see their ironic and ridiculous nature. Consider his narrative of driving along the Florida coastline:

It already contained the worst kind of postwar suburban crud development imaginable, a 60-mile long corridor straddling old U.S. Highway 1 lined by strip malls, car dealerships, franchise fry pits, gated retirement home subdivisions, and all the other equipment of the world's highest standard of living. . . . This was not a landscape that made you feel all warm and cuddly. You felt like an ant, broiling in the sun, about to be squashed under a giant's boot heel. (Home From Nowhere, 209)

Or his comparison of European cities with our own:

Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the difference between European cities and ours, which make it appear as though World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam. We barely endure the endless gridlock of suburbia, and wonder what is so deeply unfulfilling about the American dream. And having thrown away much of the past to attain it, our disconnection from other elements of human culture is nearly complete. ( Home From Nowhere, 73)

By juxtaposing some of the unique advantages of American society (world's highest standard of living and lack of war on the home front) with the dismal state of our built environment, Kunstler brings to light the tragic nature of our postwar suburban development. His observations register as truths we have observed but somehow lack the vocabulary to comprehend or the will to challenge. Somehow, 50 years of enduring cheap and ugly buildings constructed and sited in an inefficient and haphazard manner has convinced us that this is the only way we can do things anymore.

But, for all his cynicism, Kunstler doesn't let us settle for this kind of fatalism. He never lets us accept the historical aberration known as postwar suburban development as either a normative form emerging from our past or an advisable (or even plausible direction) for the future. He challenges us to question the assumptions that have led us down these unfulfilling paths and to return to the age-old practice of building quality and sustainable human communities.

Kunstler is also quite effective in taking the Christian community to task for its role in this cultural regression. He never really develops this theme systematically but periodically lashes out at evangelical Christians in particular. Most of it consists of cheap shots: "Religion is a kind of low-grade showbiz for that half of the nation under the median IQ" ( Home From Nowhere, 73). His most substantive critique is that the evangelical community has been led by a flawed eschatology to accept all manner of unfulfilling living arrangements. Kunstler sees in the entrance to Disneyland a vivid picture of the American Christian worldview:

The entry procedure strikingly approximates the American Protestant concept of going to heaven. One leaves behind the gritty real world and mills around a pleasant and familiar outdoor place of assembly—where the climate is magically room-temperature—with a crowd of strangers all happily anticipating pleasures to come. ( Geography of Nowhere, 224)

He's right, of course. Too often, we Christians have allowed our sentimental longing for Eden or a kind of functional gnosticism to ignore or passively endure the built environment around us. We have rejected the revealed model for our redeemed existence—the concrete and urban setting of the New Jerusalem—in favour of a privatized and abstract fantasy consisting of a detached mansion on a large swath of land.

Kunstler's disappointment with the Christian community's unconscious collusion in the suburban experiment may have prevented him from discovering other more helpful strands within the biblical tradition. His lack of religious foundation greatly weakens the force of his rhetoric for a fairly religious populace. He criticizes the American public for their greed and short-sightedness in terms that long for—if not assume—some kind of divine arbitrator of justice: "I begin to come to the disquieting conclusion that we Americans are these days a wicked people who deserve to be punished" ( Home From Nowhere, 297). But his assessment of the wickedness of his fellow citizens is merely visceral and lacks the force of moral imperative. By choosing not to identify with either his Jewish or German Christian ancestors, Kunstler limits himself to the role of a self-referential prophet with very limited authority in the American public realm.

Another weakness in Kunstler's approach is his generational myopia. As much as he swims against almost every stream of the privatized and consumerist American culture, his personal religious views consist of trite slogans of the baby boomer generation: "I am not religious, but I am aware of a spiritual dimension to this mysterious world" ( Home From Nowhere, 297). This view is characteristic of a generation that wants spirituality as a consumer good for private consumption without the messiness and risk of a public expression within the context of the wider human community.

The Christian community should be taken to task for misunderstanding the communal aspects of their faith because their faith is inherently communal. But Kunstler's alternate privatized version of spirituality actually provides a more suitable foundation for the suburban sprawl approach to development than more orthodox expressions of biblical faith.

These important considerations notwithstanding, James Howard Kunstler has an important message for the American public in general and the Christian community in particular. We need to rethink an eschatology that is not over-influenced by the privatized image of the American dream or by the Edenesque longing for virgin wilderness. We need an eschatology that takes human community (and its built form) seriously. The churches we build, the houses we live in, the stores at which we shop, and the important spatial connections between all these things represent a form of proclamation that we can no longer ignore. It is time for the church to develop a theology of place that can adequately respond to the Geography of Nowhere.

Topics: Cities
 

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.

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