Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Prescription for Meaningful Change

James Howard Kunstler quickly became my author of choice regarding the built environment and social matters due to his humorous, yet rooted in common sense, manner of expounding on the programmatic great waste of American cities. His writing is also useful in relaying historic perspective to the mindset of different cultures as he has done so eloquently in his work 'The City in Mind' as well as the opening chapters of 'The Geography of Nowhere.'

Jim also (with the help of Duncan Crary of Troy, NY) puts out a weekly audio podcast called the Kunstlercast which discusses the built environment as well as the consequences of diminishing energy returns on our society. Finally, every monday, readers can 'tune in' to Jim's pontifications on both a regular blog and his personal professional website. In the past six months, these episodes have largely been focused on the extant financial crisis with a dash of incredulity at the behavior of social conservatives. Embedded in these installments have also been some key themes regarding behavioral and conceptual change that would best serve the populus in terms of improving the urban condition, redemarcating the distinctions between rural and urban and simulataneously redefining their interdependent relationship, and keep some remnants of a nationwide domestic economy functioning, especially goods distribution. This brings me to his post entitled 'State of Cringe,' dated January 26, 2009.

While Kunstler is a supporter of President Obama, he is also realistic about the challenges faced and our ability as a nation to cope with them without the material comforts that have undermined American attitude and work ethic. After five paragraphs speculating on deflationary depression versus stimulus borne hyper-inflation, Kunstler settles in with some skepticism of Obama's infrastructure based stimulus.

"I've been skeptical of the "stimulus" as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable -- since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote. I haven't heard any talk so far about promoting walkable communities, or any meaningful plan to get serious about fixing passenger rail and integral public transit. Has Mr. Obama's circle lost sight of the fact that we import more than two-thirds of the oil we use, even during the current price hiatus? Or have they forgotten how vulnerable this leaves us to the slightest geopolitical spasm in such stable oil-exporting nations as Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, Libya, Algeria, Columbia, Iran, and the Middle East states? And we're going to rescue ourselves by driving cars?"

Happy Motoring of course refers to our nation's near compulsory program of carefree incessant driving which not only marginalizes those unable to afford the tools of a 'full' member of society, but has been linked to higher obesity rates, especially in the South, and is no doubt a source of airborne pollutants. Beyond political instability, simple math is going to make endless importing a thing of the past as the domestic usage in countries listed like Mexico exceeds total production, effectively wiping volume from the world oil market.

After an admonishment of 'crusin' for burgers' ethos and calling for a revision to the national stimulus bill, Kunstler begins to tabluate what constitutes constructive stimuli:

"We have to rehabilitate thousands of downtowns all over the nation to accommodate the new re-scaled edition of local and regional trade that will follow the death of national chain-store retail of the WalMart ilk. Reactivated town centers and Main Streets are indispensable features of walkable communities. The Congress for the New Urbanism ( ought to be consulted on the procedures for accomplishing this and for rehabilitating the traditional neighborhoods connected to our Main Streets."

This is to say that downtown revitalization cannot be approached in the same manner as in the past. Plopping down office complexs with skyways like Midtown Plaza effectively drain a downtown over time as we saw right before our eyes. This is a call for traditional reasonably scaled retail and the accompanying 'affordable housing (a completely fabricated term and concept due to the preponderance of elite suburban housing)' on upper floors.

"We have to reform food production (a.k.a. "farming"). Petro-dependent agri-biz will go the same way as the chain stores. Its equations will fail, especially in a credit-strapped society. That piece of the picture is so dire right now, as we prepare for the planting season, that many crops may not be put in for lack of front-money. This portends, at least, much higher food prices at the end of the year, if not outright scarcities and shortages. And the new government wants to gold-plate highway off-ramps instead? Earth to Rahm Emanuel: screw your head back on."

The average American has no understanding of not only the petroleum needs for farming machinery, but also the soil inputs (a term coined coinciding with the rise of macro-agriculture) fabricated by fertilizer and pesticide companies. Credit woes are the easily explainable part in this worrisome scenario.

"As mentioned above, we have to get passenger rail going again because the airlines are going to die the next time there is an uptick in oil prices, or a spot shortage of oil. Let's not be too grandiose and attempt to build expensive high-speed or mag-lev networks -- certainly not right now -- because they require entirely new track systems. Let's fix those regular tracks already out there, rusting in the rain, or temporarily replaced by bike trails."

Already newly appointed Senator Gillibrand of New York has floated the high-speed rail buzzword around. How about we restore original trackage levels on existing rights of way? The main line through the City of Rochester and the rest of Monroe County was originally 4 tracks wide. The land and bridges still exist and are likely owned by CSX. An expansion of capacity would improve Amtrak on-time performance. As far as I know, there is significant support for Amtrak in the realm of 'shovel ready' projects, namely the procurement of additional rolling stock to increase frequency of service (I know Sen. Casey of Pennsylvania ranks this at the high end of his wish list). As it stands today, the only train you can take from Rochester to Cleveland or Chicago leaves at 11PM and arrives in Northeast Ohio at 3:30AM at a similarly uninspiring shitcube pretending to be a railroad station. I don't think its unreasonable to put technological experiments on hold until we demonstrate an ability to operate passenger rail in this country at a 3rd-grade level.

I realize this post came with a bit of cynicism, but these are worthwhile pursuits that would create the same government institutionalized employment and having longer lasting results in an effort to reestablish the city center as the primary national organ of commerce. Until then I will continue to read The Geography of Nowhere and structure my life such that I can vote for a more sustainable, community-oriented society with my wallet (I'll be on a train for Toronto on February 20!). Wholesale cultural change by edict will be impossible to come by. It's time for each individual to exercise more control over their lives to ensure a tenable future. These suggestions would at least give us more options in that pursuit.


Rottenchester said...

I'll second the Kunstlercast recommendation. The one you recommended on children in the suburbs was good. I've only just started listening to the others, but what I've heard so far makes sense.

Also, I'll be interested in hearing about your Toronto train trip. I'm always looking for a better way to get to TO.

Greg R said...

Hi there,

Kuntsler does have some good points regarding this stuff, though he tends to become kind of one-note in his weekly updates... Which in a messaging sense is useful but not as much for those interested in the nuances. Taking a step back, though, I think there is an interesting dynamivc in the juxtaposition of Kuntsler (Transformative Change is GOING to happen TO us) and the currently en-vogue spirit of progress ("we need to MAKE transformative change,")I see the stimulus as some sort of an initial (if in ways misguided) stab at the latter.

What I'm interested in is how people interested a renaissance of the town center (and all that comes with that) can hitch our wagon in a meaningful way to this "change" thing we're hearing so much about. shouldn't we be embracing the idea of "big change"? Isn't that what we want?(forgetting for a moment about the policy details, which we don't like re: Highways vs. Transit).
To that end, you raise an interesting point re: HSR vs. incremental investment in rail we have now - does attention to one do a disservice to the other? I think the policy answer is no. I'm unsure about the "movement messaging" answer, but I believe people like us need to be thinking about questions like this - how does the urbanist movement take advantage of this broader cultural moment? Kunstler's perspective is a starting place, and he shines a unique spotlight on some core truths, but I think we need to think beyond what's wrong and seek out the ways in which we can effectively articulate a vision for our future. And fast.

To be more concise, I salute you for asking these questions, and encourage you top keep digging for the answers, or at least the more refined questions.

BTW, I'm a former WNYer doing affordable housing and smart growth advocacy in inner burbs of the Bay Area. Obstacles I face here in my work have gotten me thinking a great deal about possibilities back home, and to that end I've been appreciating your posts! Keep it up!

Bob and Tia said...


It is high time I did a case study on Toronto. This will be the 16th time I've been there. The train ride will certainly be long (5h 39m), but my wife and I are actually looking forward to that. I think a lot of the delay will come at the border. I've gone to Syracuse on the train in less time than it takes to drive.

Greg R,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

I know exactly what you mean with the 'one-note' line. I can't tell you how many times I've read "We aren't going to run Walmart, Disney World, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of French Fry Oil, Wind, Solar..." but I realize that any interview Kunstler gives may end up being read by someone for whom this is their first exposure to his core argument.

You would think the urbanist would be in favor of a big change mantra, but the change we need is a wholesale overturn of hidden things like zoning codes so that traditional development is no longer illegal. I think the Obama administration is certainly capable of understanding this, but right now it is drowned out by the incessant whining of the filthy rich no longer able to pull their swindle on the mortgage industry. So we create this abstraction called "jobs" doing what we know how to do which is lay down more pavement. There are other elements under the overaching banner of 'change' that will have localized positive effect such as the renewed emphasis on service. Community building is something that will become important again very shortly in order to create sustainable domestic economy.

I don't think upgrading current rail curtails the possibility of future high-speed systems. But if I'm spending the mega bucks for this sort of thing I want to be 100% sure there is a long-term need for something advanced as opposed to people simply wanting it to replace the increasingly miserbale ordeal of air travel or singular motoring. Putting a dollar to its best use doesn't necessarily mean shooting for the moon (in fact Kunstler had a good quote about 'assholes at NASA still talking about space travel when we still need to teach 10 million people how to garden.').

Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

Puant said...

Nice work on this blog, Urban Champ. I've been following your blog for a while now, though I seldom comment for whatever reason.... Keep up the good work!

Kunstler is also one of my favorite authors/social critics.

Anonymous said...

I've made that train trip: it is pretty nice and convenient--depending where your hotel is (assuming you're staying overnight). The Royal York, right above the station, really reminds you of the integration the railroad companies were able to provide. But the hotel's not cheap.

The border crossing takes a while: that's the problem with the trip--particularly on the way back. The US agents board the trains with Drug Dogs, too. It feels very much like your crossing to the former Eastern Europe.