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Can America Survive Suburbia?
March 20, 2007 7:58 PM   Subscribe

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.-- James Howard Kunstler “Can America Survive Suburbia?”
posted by lonefrontranger (45 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sure, we've heard about the health risks, but what is the sociological impact of suburbs without sidewalks? LOLMURRIKANS eh? Hold on, car-dependent culture isn't exclusive to the U.S. Yeah, okay, but what can I do about it? Invest in child-friendly(.pdf) community planning and change the paradigm, one local, organic, fair trade business at a time... unless, of course, you’d prefer yours to be the Last Child in the Woods (previously posted on Metafilter)
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:58 PM on March 20, 2007


Thanks for sharing. I've often wondered the same thing myself.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:19 PM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm going to strike it rich when I start a chain of stores that specialize in canned food and shotguns.
posted by mullingitover at 8:23 PM on March 20, 2007


Thank god these architects champoning New Urbanism will save us from the horrors driving to TGI Fridays, Hooters, or Bennigans for wings. At last salvation is here from the misery of hanging out at the multiplex. I say join Howard in his crusade to kill the culture that embraces the Bloomin Onion. Hurah and on to victory. We will not rest until the basements are emptied of the last of the stoners. We shall not stop until the last strip mall is returned to woodland. Leave the Whole Foods, the Ikea and the Home Depot though we need our flat packs, new appliances and gormet cheeses. This is just like when those heroic architects saved us from the horrible blighted crime ridden inner city neighborhoods in the 1960s using urban renewal. It is also like the time architects built giant housing projects for the poor people to solve the problem of affordable safe housing.
posted by humanfont at 8:31 PM on March 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


yea i figured it was only a matter of time... LET THE HURF DURF HIPPIES HYPERBOLE COMMENCE kidding
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2007


Say what you will...but the Bloomin Onion is pretty rad.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:40 PM on March 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Great post, like a sociology paper, only truly interesting. Nice to see your frost post be bicycle-centric, too!

Yup, when I was a kid, we were outside playing and riding our bikes all day all summer long... That's the oversimplification that's always coming up in conversations with friends my age.
posted by Shane at 8:43 PM on March 20, 2007


"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."

Around 40 BC, Horace's satires catalog the impulse, among the educated— that is, the wealthy— to flee the Roman city for its proposed antidote: the Romantic "suburb," composed of villas in the natural landscape— which was made possible by another pre-industrial novelty, the massive wealth generated by cities. This was the beginning of anti-urban satires as we know them.
posted by klangklangston at 8:46 PM on March 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


A neighbourhood without sidewalks can work very well if the road is so narrow that it by default becomes the sidewalk. My parents-in-law live in a semi-urban neighbourhood (near a subway, but not downtown) where people walk down the middle of the small narrow streets, claiming the whole as a pedestrian way which cars occasionally drive down. The pedestrians and the narrowness of the road also causes the cars to stay well below the legal speed limit - at about 30-40 km/hour or less, instead of 60. It's like being on a country lane, in the middle of the city.

The problem comes when you have wide roads without sidewalks, and the cars move rapidly, making it dangerous to try to walk down the road. Then you have people clinging to precarious verges, or not walking down the road at all, and no neighbourhood to speak of.
posted by jb at 8:51 PM on March 20, 2007


Perhaps my perspective is tainted on this— I'm coming from Ann Arbor, a bastion of both "new urbanism" and bicycle anti-urbanism, and about to move to LA, a city which seems at war with the pedestrian (and I likely won't have a car once I'm there— whoa!).
But here in Ann Arbor, I see the same people who argue for a bike culture also viciously fight against development of all types, which includes "new urbanist" developments. The problem is that a lot of the bikey folk, of which I am one, want not a real city, but a sylvan paradise of parks and two-story buildings, which also necessitates the sprawl which makes bike riding harder.
posted by klangklangston at 8:53 PM on March 20, 2007


The highest achievement of zoning is to produce suburban sprawl.

Funny stuff. Definitely written by somebody who doesn't have a clue what city planners actually do.

OK, down with zoning! Back to nature! Let Houston be our guide!
posted by rockabilly_pete at 8:54 PM on March 20, 2007


Yeah, in response to jb, I totally support narrowing streets and letting people park all the way around corners, especially since people around here keep putting speed bumps in instead.
posted by klangklangston at 8:55 PM on March 20, 2007


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.

The City Beautiful movement wasn't all that, either, as Jane Jacobs (who got it right so many years ago and who continues to be so consistently ignored) pointed out. Neither Burnham nor Olmsted would have designed the street outside my window — in fact they'd probably have preferred to see it torn down — but I like it anyway, bizarre Egyptian Art-Deco and all. The New Urbanists and their bathetic, ineffectual faux city centers are a minor improvement on the previous generation of planners and their bathetic, ineffectual faux country houses, but that's not saying much.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:15 PM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


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!

Perhaps that is just a tiny bit of a simplification.

And I agree with klangklangston: a carless society inevitably be denser in terms of people per square foot. The requires heavily urban environment. Skyscrapers that block the sky, greenspaces surrounded by concrete.

The only other problem I have with the post is that, like many liberal ideas, it tends to put all the eggs in all the baskets. While "one local, organic, fair trade business at a time" is great, it doesn't have everything to do with carless cities, and sometimes will act against having a carless city. The amount of food needed for a large urban center will probably be too much in terms of quantity for it to entirely be supported by local, organic farmers.
posted by zabuni at 9:19 PM on March 20, 2007


Great post, lfr.
posted by Danf at 9:23 PM on March 20, 2007


what is the sociological impact of suburbs without sidewalks?

Um ... people walk / jog / bike on the street like we do?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:31 PM on March 20, 2007


I walk everywhere living in NYC. When I go down to visit my parents in Tampa Bay, I drive everywhere (in their cars). One night, I wanted to go to Panera Bread, and there wasn't a car for me, so I decided to walk. How long could it take? It was a straight shot on one road; the drive was probably 5-7 minutes, and I'm a fast walker. It took me a fucking hour. Blew my mind.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:41 PM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


good post. As noted above, criticising all town planning for bad town planning is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
posted by wilful at 9:48 PM on March 20, 2007


Oh, LOLMURIKKANS about the very idea that you can have suburbs without footpaths. How fucked an idea is that?

here's a great website about (idealised) cities without cars, but without skyscrapers and concrete jungles: http://www.carfree.com/
posted by wilful at 9:54 PM on March 20, 2007


jb: A neighbourhood without sidewalks can work very well if the road is so narrow that it by default becomes the sidewalk.
agreed. i saw some of this dynamic in play in/around the Mt. Vernon neighbourhoods of Baltimore.

in fact i'm fairly aware of what city planners do, my mom was one for thirty years. one of the things that bugs me about the infrastructure of Denver is that they spend money on 'transit initiatives' read: lets put more bike paths that don't actually *go* much of anywhere, into open spaces that would be better served as parks, boundaries, or wilderness habitat. oh and let's not forget the suburban stripmall disaster of BroomMinsterVada that all the 'growth initiatives' in boulder county has spawned.

mostly i feel like the western europeans have a good thing going on with (most of) their infrastructure. when i lived in Hamburg germany pretty much everything was within walking distance, few of my friends owned cars, and only the city centre was much more than about 5 or 6 storeys tall - the buildings were old enough not to have lifts installed and while it's a pain to huck a bike up a fifth storey walkup, it sure beats the hell out of tract housing.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:20 PM on March 20, 2007


> I'm going to strike it rich when I start a chain of stores that specialize in canned food and shotguns.

When The Time comes, your stores will be looted by people with loaded shotguns.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2007


I lived in Europe and it's a pain in the ass. I lived in Paris and I lived Antwerp and I had to walk up five flights in each city, listen to my neighbors scream at each other in Dutch and French, walk everywhere all the time in the cold winter because owning a car was out of the question, had no space, little privacy and paid five times for food at the specialty shops what it cost at the big block supermarkets which were too far away.

But out here in suburban America it's quiet, I don't have to look at my neighbors much less hear them, I have a front yard and a back yard and a pond and a copse of trees and herons and egrets and cranes and a flock of wild turkeys and an alligator and turtles and raccoons and some cows next door and a supermarket just down the street and plenty of parking for my SUV which is cool in the summer and warm in the winter and waits for me right outside my door. Have fun on your little bicycle, but please stay out of my way when I'm driving my Escalade because it's so big I can't see around it well.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:54 PM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not to worry--Abandoned "big box" retail space will become the new Projects. Any idea how many displaced suburbanite families you can fit into an emptied Office Depot?
posted by sourwookie at 10:56 PM on March 20, 2007


heh, sourwookie, if foreclosure panic hits the markets as hard as the media is trumpeting about, we may just find out.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:04 PM on March 20, 2007


Enjoy it while it lasts, KAC.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:10 PM on March 20, 2007


Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann

Sprawl is neither American nor new.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 12:45 AM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


KAC, that's sounds like the experience of living in huge, densly-populated urban centers more than it sounds like the particular experience of living in Europe. You could easily have just described downtown Chicago.
posted by moonbiter at 12:50 AM on March 21, 2007


Steve_at_Linnwood's right.

The Victorians invented sprawl in its modern sense with London. As the British Empire gathered steam in the 19th century, the capital exploded out from its core engulfing dozens of smaller settlements. It was the original megacity, a Victorian Los Angles in terms of spread, 28 miles from North to South and 35 miles from East to west. And the sprawl is exacerbated by a peculiarly British quirk: it is quite possible to live a mile from the centre and have a decent sized garden. This makes no sense whatsoever, but it is nice in the summer.

The only real difference is the Victorians didn't have cars so they did sprawl with public transport.
posted by rhymer at 2:45 AM on March 21, 2007


But out here in suburban America it's quiet, I don't have to look at my neighbors much less hear them...

The thing about cities is that they're geared towards people who like being around other people. The urban/suburban divide is between people who enjoy interacting with strangers and having their beliefs constantly challenged, and those who want their primary interaction with the world to be through a small selection of television or internet outlets that reinforce their beliefs.

i keep wanting to pluralize "beliefs" as "believes". is that normal?
posted by phooky at 4:14 AM on March 21, 2007


The urban/suburban divide is between people who enjoy interacting with strangers and having their beliefs constantly challenged, and those who want their primary interaction with the world to be through a small selection of television or internet outlets that reinforce their beliefs.

Some of the most provincial and close-minded people I've known have been from cities, while here in the suburbs of Michigan I've had more exposure to other cultures than anywhere else I've ever lived. That may be an anomaly, but your thesis doesn't hold true for me.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 5:01 AM on March 21, 2007


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 problem with Kunstler (actually one of many) is right there in the second paragraph of the first link: Thank-you white man for inventing the city! He is a not-so-closeted racist, of the "why can't black people stop talking funny and start getting that work ethic" style (and not too fond of women either.)

This is a problem because the American city is as much a picture of racism in concrete (so to speak) than any planning principle. Or, you can think of it as a planning principle: I plan to move as far away from my black (or Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, etc...) neighbors as I can afford.

He's a real ranter and I don't think worth taking too seriously except that his central point is inarguable: the American way of live, with a car for everyone and a ever expanding network of highways and housing developments is completely unsustainable in the face of the end of cheap oil. Or, has been built with the implicit (and crazy) assumption that oil will always be plentiful and cheap.

I think it is some law of nature that when a society becomes so deluded that it can no longer act to save it self, that only kranks and kooks like kunstler seem to notice the problem.
posted by geos at 5:05 AM on March 21, 2007


geos: agreed, he's a ranter, and biassed. just because you disagree with someone's politics doesn't mean they can't make some valid points tho. perhaps i should have chosen one of my many other links as a lead link, but i figured that one would start some discussion.

like perhaps this link, from a housewife who tried to make a go of it as a car-free family in normal, indiana. seems like she wasn't able to do it. i feel for her, but personally (i come from the midwest) i think she's a little crazy to have even tried.

i believe pretty strongly that sometime, possibly in my lifetime, the corporate, big-box, industrialised business model is going to fail drastically. this link that i posted about new york city community gardeners provides a look at how we might be able to cope.

also: narrowminded liberals are one of my bigger pet peeves. i don't think the solution to society's ills is to bulldoze everything and let the wiccans take over... i'm not that much of a crazy old cat lady (yet).

one of my main beefs with suburbs (despite Lentrohamsanin's analogy above) is what has been my personal experience: the narrowmindedness, xenophobia and lack of diversity of their inhabitants. it can't really be avoided: sprawl exists in the main because as the middle class gained in wealth, they segregated themselves from those who weren't 'their kind'. that link about gated communities is the attitude i'm talking about.

for all of you who think i'm trying to proselytise for kunstler, i'd urge you to check out some of the other links. there's additional stuff behind them.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:32 AM on March 21, 2007


one of my main beefs with suburbs (despite Lentrohamsanin's analogy above) is what has been my personal experience: the narrowmindedness, xenophobia and lack of diversity of their inhabitants.

One good point that you remind me of: while there is cultural diversity here, there's not a whole lot of class diversity. The area is mostly middle/upper middle class, though there are a number of check cashing shops down my end, so that may be more about self-identification than actual economic status.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:58 AM on March 21, 2007


just because you disagree with someone's politics doesn't mean they can't make some valid points tho.

i agree with his basic thesis which is that U.S. "car culture" is doomed, it's just that I think his politics really stink. the problem in the U.S. has always been 'political' rather than ideological per se. i don't like seeing him a poster-boy for 'realism' in U.S. land use as a result.

personally, I think Kunstler and the "new urbanism" represent as sort of nascent upper middle class high-Toryism in the US: the pleasures and garden and country life against the horrors of commercialism, etc. You should hear Kunstler wax eloquent about the coming return of an agricultural laboring class. This manifests itself in the relentless NIMBYism of 'liberals' in places like Ann Arbor and Amherst wrt development.
posted by geos at 7:14 AM on March 21, 2007


But out here in suburban America it's quiet, ... and some cows next door

If your neighbours have cows, that's not exactly your typical suburban housing development. I've lived in places like you describe, and it's very nice, sure. It's nothing much like the great majority of the "millions of tract house subdivisions" about which Kunstler writes. I've lived driven through many, and lived in one of those, that were every bit as desolate as described by their detractors. Some people do claim to like them, of course, but as long as nobody's building much of anything else they don't really have much of a choice, on average.

Anyway, it was amusing to see how optimistic Kunstler used to be.

Kunstler, 1996: "One fine June morning in 1998, perhaps, [everyone is] going to wake up and say that suburban sprawl is an experiment that has failed and we're not going to build any more of it."

Kunstler, 2006: "The final result will be a dashed American Dream -- of a safe life in a happy home. Poor Martha Stewart will be seen as the goddess who failed. Well, she already has, really, having gone to prison and afterward retreated into her omnimedia fortress of corporate refuge (basically joining the enemy). As the middle class chokes and gets crushed under the weight of its unpayable debts and falling standards of living, Martha may be lucky to avoid getting eaten, along with a long list of other celebrity porkchops that an angry and grievance-filled public will turn on."
posted by sfenders at 7:15 AM on March 21, 2007


by the way, I hate to be critical, but the 'Car Free' website reeks of the sort of upper-(middle?)class exceptionalism I find so repellant about Kunstler et al. I mean:

The assumptions of skeptical retailers can be overcome through education and examples. Shoppers enjoy the aesthetics of pedestrian areas and flock to them.

uh.. no. You should see small-time retailers get up in arms about changes to the organization of parking spaces, much less removing cars entirely. This is pure fantasy-land.

Malls get built in this country not because anyone really wants them but because big developers make tons of cash off of them: this is really a political problem and gets right to heart of just how breathtakingly corrupt *local* government can be (much less the constraints of federal policy see: oil.)

Right now you can go to the state legislature of any major sprawl afflicted state and count by hand the number of legislators *not* on payroll one way or another of major development corporations. this is another aspect of what kunstler talks about: a gigantic segment of our economy really is based on suburban development. but this creates a political reality which is these developers are enormously powerful both locally and nationally.

"people power" just creates elitist enclaves while these snakes swallow everything else... it's sad but true. you need to have a plan for killing the snake or hope it bites off more than it can swallow (see Iraq)
posted by geos at 7:28 AM on March 21, 2007


Congratulations on your first post, LFR!

In response to this point you make:
one of my main beefs with suburbs (despite Lentrohamsanin's analogy above) is what has been my personal experience: the narrowmindedness, xenophobia and lack of diversity of their inhabitants. it can't really be avoided: sprawl exists in the main because as the middle class gained in wealth, they segregated themselves from those who weren't 'their kind'.
This New Yorker says “good riddance.” People who can't appreciate what the city has to offer should live somewhere else. If an oil crunch inspired that crowd to relocate to the cities, my guess is that some of them would become city people but the majority would attempt to impose their values on the rest of us and reshape the city in accordance with those suburban values.

So I’ll offer a perverse toast to cheap oil, car culture and suburbia. Skal!
posted by jason's_planet at 8:20 AM on March 21, 2007


one of my main beefs with suburbs

is the crappy bus service, and the streets that are traffic sewers, six lanes of dust and exhaust and noise, the complete lack of neighbourhood, the dangerousness of having no eyes on the streets, and the sheer uglyness and unhealthiness. There is more dust and more litter, because it just blows down the desert-like roads. (Guess who has been travelling in Missisauga, trying to visit my sick grandparents?

Lack of bus service means that families drive everywhere (bad for health, bad for neighbourliness), kids are isolated, and the elderly and the poor are trapped.

For every idyllic subdivision, there is a hell of traffic sewers to get to that subdivision.

It's not sustainable, and it's not moral to demand that you have your peace of heaven in exchange for ruining the city for everyone else. Maybe I want to live off of the sweet, tender flesh of small children - it's tasty, I should be able to eat what I want to. But guess what, I can't.

There are solutions - I currently live in a beautiful village outside of a beautiful city. It works because the housing is low-rise but dense, with lots of green spaces in between, and very little space given over to cars. The roads are narrow and the parking is expensive. Driving into town is hell, as it should be. But anyone with kids can walk safely to grocery store or downtown, in about 20 minutes.

You can create cities/towns like this all over the world, not just in the old world where they happened naturally. Centre new developments on trains for commuting, set up main streets which are primarily pedestrian, and radiate housing around that. If people need to drive, they still can - they just have to go slower. No oil subsidy whatsoever, no parking lot subsidy, reduce the road subsidies. Drivers are subsidized constantly - make them pay their own way.Cities should be designed for PEOPLE, not for cars.

I'm just going to go back and play some more Sim City. My cities always have low crime and a lot of satisfaction.
posted by jb at 9:27 AM on March 21, 2007



(Devil'sAdvocate)

This New Yorker says “good riddance.” People who can't appreciate what the city has to offer should live somewhere else. If an oil crunch inspired that crowd to relocate to the cities, my guess is that some of them would become city people but the majority would attempt to impose their values on the rest of us and reshape the city in accordance with those suburban values.

So I’ll offer a perverse toast to cheap oil, car culture and suburbia. Skal!

(/Devil'sAdvocate)

(Sorry, lfr. Forgot the tags.)
posted by jason's_planet at 1:55 PM on March 21, 2007


Here's all I need:

1. Give me a grocery store, a drug store, a bank, a handful of restaurants, a doctor, a dentist, a vet, an ice cream shop, a library, and a couple of bars within walking distance (say, three city blocks away.)

2. Run alleys between the backside of houses (as you'll find in Chicago, for instance) and force all side street traffic in two directions (east-west or north-south) down 'em -- and close off the side streets that run in that direction, so that they become big car-free shared space for each block.

3. Time the traffic lights so that they enhance the flow of traffic, rather than purposefully impeding it (as in Altadena.)

4. Lots of public transportation that doesn't rely on the automotive right-of-way. I don't care if it's subways, monorails, light rail, bus lanes, whatever -- just give it a separate route, so that it can get you where you need to go quickly even if traffic is completely snarled.

That's all I ask. I don't need a utopian suburbia, or a utopian city; I just want basic needs covered without a car, car-free spaces outside my front door so I can meet my neighbors without my kids/dogs getting run over, a traffic system that focuses on keeping traffic moving, and public transit that works when traffic management doesn't. Is that too much to ask?

probably.
posted by davejay at 1:58 PM on March 21, 2007


also, by "as in Altadena" I mean that they purposefully slow the traffic there.
posted by davejay at 2:13 PM on March 21, 2007


Oh you cityists just think you are the hottest thing, don't you, with your buildings and your transportation. Don't you get it? We should all be living in fields and in burrows. Ever hear about a crime wave infecting a field, trash pickup problems around your burrow? Feh.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:49 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


thanks, geos, for coming back and expounding more, rather than just doing a knee-jerk 'i don't like kunstler' response. this comment is the sort of discussion i was looking for. i wholeheartedly agree, for what that's worth.

jason's_planet, no need to add the devil's advocate tags dude, i had you already figured out :] a long, long time ago on a bbs far, far away, i went by the handle 'devil's advocate', just so's you know. age has definitely mellowed me some.

i have moved around a lot during my life, and lived in situations from my dad's backwoods rural cabin with no electricity or running water, to the inner city. granted, there's no easy solution to what jb referred to here, and i couldn't have expressed it any better myself.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:43 PM on March 21, 2007


Man, this hits home right now, big time. I just moved from Boulder Colorado, to Riverside, California for grad school. Riverside is a typical OC/LA burb, and I absolutely HATE it. It is sprawl epitomized-totally built around a freeway that runs to Orange County. It is certainly the worst town I've lived in. Not to imply that Boulder is perfect (it's traffic problems are unacceptable for a city that small) but I really miss having a grocery store, liquor store, multiple specialty stores, multiple restaurants and bars, hiking trails, and my job within a 15 minute walk of my house. One of biggest aspirations upon finishing this degree (should be 12 months, maybe a bit less-w00t!) is to find a cool city that has rad public transit and lots of walkable areas, then move there. And I went to a small liberal arts college, in a town of 12,000 or so- you could walk all the way across campus in 15 minutes or so, and no bar was more than a 15 minute walk. I miss walking.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 9:56 PM on March 21, 2007


The thing about cities is that they're geared towards people who like being around other people.

That's just sick.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:34 PM on March 22, 2007


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