Can America Survive Suburbia?
Remarks by James Howard Kunstler

Europeans and Americans evidently have very different attitudes about cities. To many Europeans, cities represent the best things that life has to offer; to most Americans, cities represent the worst things. The reasons for these opposing attitudes lie in history and culture.

A Warehouse Is Not a Home
Old world cities were built to the human scale. They were composed of artifacts--buildings--that lasted through many generations and were continually re-used. They were built with care and love by the people who lived in them, using skills and a knowledge of principles that had been carried forward through the generations, just as the buildings of the city itself were expected to endure through time. The European city, as Leon Krier states, was a spiritual and technical achievement which surpassed by far the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel. The European city was conceived both as the dwelling place and as the vehicle for culture--because culture moves through time.

The United States was founded in 1789. There was no medieval Cleveland. There was no Renaissance Detroit (despite the name on those buildings off Jefferson Street). The layers of history in most American cities begin with industrialism, and everything about the rise of American cities was a kind of industrial nightmare.

American cities grew in tandem with industrialism and all of its nasty procedures. Our cities rapidly attained a gigantic size and scale never seen before in human history

Living Rooms and Lebensraum
Around 1850, we began to get this impulse, among the wealthy--that is, those who can afford it--to flee the industrial city for its proposed antidote: the romantic suburb, composed of cottages in the natural landscape--which was made possible by another industrial novelty, the railroad. This was the beginning of suburbia as we know it.

It derived from our experience as a frontier nation, of farmers achieving the dream of settlement on land of their own--good, productive land that generates wealth. To build a home for ourselves in this world is the aim of all human striving. And to live in harmony with nature is a universal human yearning. These desires combined to produce the Arcadian ideal of 19th century America--the notion of a simple, happy life in a rural setting.

Now, the house in the country is not an American invention. The Romans had villas outside the hustle and bustle of Rome. The English manor house in a park--in which nature has been thoroughly domesticated--comes down to us through the Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage and pops up as the southern plantation house. And, of course, the physical style of the English manor is expressed, in degraded form, in ten thousand drive-through banks, Howard Johnson motor lodges, and country club headquarters across the nation. So, today, the American Dream--that bundle of culturally programmed aspirations--takes the very literal form of the little house in the natural landscape. And there are a number of problems with this.

One is that a home--in the deepest sense--cannot just be a house. It is the community to which that house belongs and the life of that community which exists as the spirit within the physical form of the community. We literally take our place or find our place in a community--so the ideas of home and community are deeply intertwined. A house alone is not enough. Two hundred or two thousand or two million disconnected American Dreams--houses alone on their quarter-acre--will not add up to real communities.

The automobile suburb of today in all its ghastliness--all those millions of tract house subdivisions-- the "American dream"--has become a cartoon version of a country house--as suburbia itself is a cartoon version of the life in the country--which is to say a mockery of life in harmony in nature.

A real country house is a nice thing. We will continue to have them in the future. I am not against them. Only you can't build a civilization out of nothing but country houses, let alone fake country houses.

The town and city are indispensable!

You Can't Get Here from There
Our attitudes about cities and city life have not followed an inexorable straight course to the ruins and abandonment of today.

A hundred years ago, the City Beautiful movement rose out of the recognition that we had suddenly become a great power in the theater of nations, and that our disgusting industrial cities were not worthy of our new position in the world. So, with a common purpose--a consensus among businessmen, and politicians, and architects, and cultural leaders--America set out to transform its cities and make them into places worthy of a great nation.

The City Beautiful movement used two great tools of place-making: the vocabulary of neo-classical architecture, and the language of French civic planning. It was a bold and ambitious movement, and it produced an ensemble of great buildings honoring our streets and squares to create a public realm equal to our aspirations. The City Beautiful movement lasted about 25 years--from 1893 (the year of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago) to just after World War One.

After 1918, all the energy that we'd dedicated to making our cities beautiful was redirected to the task of making cities accomodate cars--which resulted in American cities rapidly becoming more disgusting and horrible than they had ever been before. After ten years of that--of the incredible economic boom that attended this first flush of the automobile age--we got the Great Depression. Almost nothing was built in America during the Great Depression, except highways: the great instrument for destroying American cities. The Depression led directly into World War Two. All of our industrial might was redirected to the task of winning the war. Our cities just mouldered, the way an old sofa sits on the porch of a fraternity house year after year.

When servicemen returned to America after World War Two, one image became the dominant picture of city life: Ralph Kramden's apartment, in the television series, The Honeymooners. That was it. Can you imagine anything drearier? And that, I believe, marks the point where Americans absolutely and altogether gave up on the idea of the city.

We ran away from that image of Ralph Kramden's apartment for the suburbs, shrieking in horror, and we haven't stopped running (or, rather, driving) since then. We were traumatized. We entered a psychotic period of American culture, and that's where we remain today. Abstracted from nature, including our own natures. Lost in space.

The National Automobile Slum
I propose that we now identify the human ecology of America precisely for what it really has become: the national automobile slum. This term identifies that illegible sprawl of highways, and junk buildings, and parking lagoons, and meaningless landscaped berms that compose our common surroundings. The national automobile slum. This is the nomanclature that we ought to use if we're going to understand what has happened to us. And I urge all of you to use this terminology in your planning board meetings and your letters to the editor so that soon everybody will understand that we are living in a national automobile slum.

The national automobile slum is produced by a very precise set of rules called zoning. We act as though zoning were a system of civic design. We've brainwashed ourselves into thinking they're exactly the same thing. But they're not.

Zoning is a crude classification system. It classifies a limited number of human activities, and it is obsessed with separating all those activities--like shopping and living--so they don't contaminate each other. Zoning is bent on the most extreme simplification of our world. Zoning despises complexity. Zoning is based on abstractions, not particulars. Zoning is completely unconcerned with the question of beauty and the nourishment of the human spirit. The highest achievement of zoning is to produce suburban sprawl--an abstraction of a place to live, a cartoon of a human habitat.

Home Rule, Not House Rules
Real civic design is based on principles that have evolved out of fifty centuries of human culture and experience. Real civic design seeks to integrate our daily activities in order to endow our lives with rich and satisfying experiences. Real civic design embraces complexity, especially the complexity of human social and economic relations. Real civic design is concerned with particulars and details, not with abstractions. Real civic design is deeply concerned with the question of beauty and with the nourishment of the human spirit. Real civic design produces real places that are worth caring about.

The reconstruction of American cities, and civic life, requires that we completely revamp our system for designing and assembling the places where we live and work. It requires a restoration of common purpose among free and self-confident human beings. The reconstruction of American towns and cities requires a new consensus that we are capable of making a better everyday world than the junk-scape of the last fifty years--a consensus that we deserve a better world to live and work in than the national automobile slum.

Fortunately, we have fifty centuries of human culture to use a reference in this task of restoration and rediscovery. We don't need a $100 million government research grant to figure out how to emulate the successes of history.

In Oregon, they are moving forward to form a new consensus for building the 21st century--perhaps faster than any other region of the United States. In Beaverton, a suburb outside Portland that never had a physical town center--a real place that you can see and feel--they decided to find a good model for a 20 acre brownfield on the site of a new light rail station. They sent a couple of town officials to Siena, Italy, to measure the Campo, that wonderful town center shaped like a half moon, surrounded by excellent five- story buildings. They returned to Oregon with the determination to build a new town center emulating that model. Not copying it, like a theme park, but using its dimensions as a template for the organization and definition of public space, and for the accomodation of civic life.

In Columbus, Ohio, developer Jack Lucks built three blocks of rowhouse apartments with stores on the ground floor along High Street.. He wasn't imitating a "style," he was emulating a successful pattern: the American urban rowhouse neighborhood, in all its particulars. Those buildings are brand new, yet they work so well in their setting that after two years the old blocks around them are springing back to life with businesses, and markets, and middle-class inhabitants who want to be there. If your city can't figure out how to reproduce real urban neighborhoods, then it should send a delegation to Columbus to see how it's done.

Meanwhile, on the old East Side of Cleveland, what models are they referencing? The suburban ranch house on the quarter-acre lot, and the strip-mall. These are not urban forms! They will not restore Cleveland to the condition of a place worth caring about. They are not good enough! They are UFOs landing from the alien culture of suburban sprawl, and every ranch house and strip mall that lands on Chester Avenue or Euclid Avenue will be another wound to the city of Cleveland. The future is telling us very clearly that we are going to have to live differently in the 21st century.

Suburban sprawl is destroying the civic life of our nation. Because civic life is not about being alone. It's about getting along with other people in a real place that is worth caring about. Not just because you're forced to, not because you have no other choice, but because of the wonderful benefits conferred on us by the condition known as civilization.

The Kindness of Strangers
We're fortunate that there is a movement gathering all over this country to remake our everyday world into places that are worth caring about.

A new generation of political and cultural leaders declares that the physical form of our everyday world matters--it matters that we live in automobile slums, that our schools look like insecticide factories, and that our town halls could be brake lining assembly plants, and that our best hotels look like medium security prisons.

This new generation declares that the public realm matters, and that we must honor it and embellish it with buildings worth caring about, in order to make civic life possible.

The form that these New Urbanists envision is both deeply familiar and revolutionary: the mixed- use, pedestrian-scaled neighborhood in increments of villages, towns, and cities. It is familiar because it is the way America built itself through most of our history, really until the end of World War Two. It is a physical form that complies exactly with our own traditions. It is a form that expresses many Americans' most cherished ideas about our nation at its best. And yet this New Urbanism is revolutionary because it starkly contradicts the world of suburban sprawl that has become the real setting for our national life, and the source of so many of our woes.

The New Urbanism declares that the knowledge needed to achieve a restoration of the human habitat in America already exists. We don't have to fly to Mars to get it. We don't need a $50 billion federal research project. It exists in those fifty centuries of world history and culture, including our own American traditions of architecture and civic design.

The New Urbanism recognizes that we have been living through an extraordinarily abnormal period of cultural amnesia that is now coming to an end. We are ready to reconnect the past and the future in order to live in a hopeful present.

I think the New Urbanist movement is one of the most hopeful signs on the national scene. I share its members' belief that if we can repair the physical fabric of our everyday world, many of the damaged and abandoned institutions of our civic life may follow into restoration.

Peek Through the Curtains
For many reasons it may be hard for Americans to imagine a city life that is spiritually rewarding. There is so much in our history, and especially in our current behavior, that rebukes everything that cities seem to stand for. But human beings are social organisms. Most people actually like other people and seek to be with them, and need to be with them in places worth being in, places of memorable quality and character.

We need an everyday world that is that is worthy of our affection, that is worthy of our aspirations, that is worthy of what is best in the human spirit, not what is worst, most antisocial, most paranoid, most destructive.

Just Say, "No!"
Remember the old Soviet Union? Well, one bright morning in June of 1991, an astounding majority of bureaucrats in the Soviet Government--people with the deepest personal stake in the system--all woke up and got the same idea. And the idea was this: Our economic system is an experiment that has failed, and we're going to get rid of it. And they did. They accomplished this without fax machines, without computer networks, without a free press, without the right of public assembly, without even a reliable telephone system. Imagine that!

Something similar is going to happen here. One fine June morning in 1998, perhaps, all the city planners, and zoning board members, and architects, and even the lowly traffic engineers, and the students and the professors and the soccer moms and the commuters, are all going to wake up and say that suburban sprawl is an experiment that has failed and we're not going to build anymore of it. We're going to create beautiful towns and cities here in America instead, with gorgeous countryside in between these beautiful towns and cities.

And on this incredible day we're going to have fax machines, and the World Wide Web, and e-mail, and a free press, and a reliable phone system--and word of this revolution is going to crackle across the country in a matter of minutes. And from that day forward we can become again what we once were: a land full of places worth caring about in a nation worth defending.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of "The Geography of Nowhere" and "Home from Nowhere."