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Back to the Future

A road map for tomorrow's cities

by James Howard Kunstler

Published in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine




I LOVE THOSE CITIES-of-the-future illustrations from the old pop-culture bin. In “yesterday’s tomorrow,” they always get things so wonderfully wrong. One of my favorites, from the August 1925 issue of Popular Science Monthly, depicts a heroic cross section of New York’s Park Avenue looking to the south from around 47th Street in the far-off sci-fi future of 1950. “Airport landing fields” are denoted on the roof of a building that has replaced the familiar Grand Central Station tower at the end of the vista. A zeppelin hovers over a row of quaint little “aeroplanes” stashed up there. Park Avenue itself has become a pedestrian mall, not a honking Checker Cab in sight. They’re all down in a three-level underground tunnel system: one level for slow motor traffic, one for fast, and the lowest for trains and subways. “Spiral escalators” connect all the levels to the street above, and turntable-equipped parking garages occupy the basements of the “half a mile high” skyscrapers that line the avenue.

The illustration is a beautifully rendered black-and-white lithograph, and the layout of this future New York is impeccably rational down to the pneumatic “freight tubes” in the lowest subbasement of the buildings. It expresses every wish of its day about optimal city life to absolute perfection, the engineered efficiency breathtaking. Of course, this vision didn’t come to pass. Among other things, it failed to anticipate the effects of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the massive shift to suburbia afterward, which decanted so much wealth (and so many well-off citizens) out of the cities. About the only thing it got right was that the buildings lining Park Avenue would eventually be a lot bigger.

Another favorite of mine in this genre, done in the mid-1950s to portray the far-off year 2000, depicts a city of towers cut through with swooping super-duper highways. So far, so good. It could be Houston or Atlanta today. The amusing part is that the cars depicted all have giant tail fins—because people were cuckoo for tail fins that year. So, naturally, the future would be all about tail fins.

In other words, most visions of the future are really less about the future and more about what’s happening now. Extrapolation tends toward exaggeration. Today, there are two basic cities-of-the-future themes competing in the collective imagination: the dazzling megacity of megastructures (Dubai’s steroid-induced construction) versus something I call Thanatopolis, the city of the dead (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Book of Eli, etc.). All this said, it should be obvious that planning for the city of the future is tied into the urgent issues of our time—climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, the crisis of banking and money, population overshoot, and war—familiar themes to readers of this journal. Add to this the virtual certainty of the nonlinear playing out of events, and you’re soon in the realm of pure conceit. But assuming the human race will carry on (and I do), we’ll have to live somewhere, and in some manner, and lots of plans are being made now anyway.

I depart from a lot of current thinking on the subject. For instance, many people seem to think that there will be more of everything—more people, taller skyscrapers, greater suburbs, bigger airplanes, larger metro regions, or even super-gigantic slums. I don’t go along with this bundle of bull, except for the slums, which I think will be short-lived, contrary to the vision of popular author Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. Of course, trends won’t proceed with the same timing everywhere in the world. But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.

I see our cities getting smaller and denser, with fewer people. Skyscrapers will be obsolete, travel greatly reduced, and the rural edge more distinct. The energy inputs to our economies will decrease a lot, and probably in ways that prove destabilizing. The first manifestations of climate change will be food shortages, one of the reasons I think super slum cities will be short-lived. The growth of urban megaslums in the past one hundred years has been predicated on turning oil into food, and the failure of that equation is aggravating weather-related crop failures around the world. Food shortages will quickly bend the arc of world population growth downward from the poorer margins and inward to the “developed” center—with stark implications for politics and even civil order. The crisis of money is already hampering the operation of cities and will soon critically impede the repair of water systems, paved streets, electric service, and other vital infrastructure. We are heading into a major reset of daily life, a phase of history I call The Long Emergency. Tomorrow will be a lot more like a distant yesteryear in terms of reduced comforts, commerce, and the scale of things.

Bye Bye Beaver

A major theme of mine over the years has been the fiasco of suburbia, where more than half of the U.S. population now lives. It was not produced by a conspiracy, but because it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the confluences of history. Its time is over; the global oil predicament will finish it off, probably sooner rather than later. Laying aside the fine points of its design shortcomings, the logistical drawbacks will leave suburbia harshly devalued. That process is already under way in the aftermath of the housing “bubble.” In the past decade, homebuyers were told to “drive till you qualify”—meaning, far enough into the exurban asteroid belts to where housing was still reasonably affordable. As long-term prospects for motoring dim, these are precisely the houses that are sinking the fastest.

All suburbs have a problematic destiny. Some will do better than others, based on idiosyncrasies of politics and geography. A few will be retrofitted into towns, though a shortage of capital will be a big obstacle when it comes to money for police and other services. Suburbia’s characteristic lack of civic armature suggests an absence of community cohesion. I expect many suburbs will become squats, ruins, and salvage yards. Out of necessity, we will have to forage and reuse all kinds of materials that were energy-intensive to make, from aluminum trusses to concrete blocks.

A lot of young people already have no use or affection for suburbia, and have begun moving into big cities. But when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities. Most of these places are in sad shape after decades of neglect, but they can be repopulated and reactivated.

Farming will require far more human attention than it did during the heyday of industrial agriculture, when roughly 2 percent of the population could produce food for everyone. This agricultural landscape will be organized differently with smaller farms and more people living on or near them. With reduced access to liquid fossil fuels, we’ll run fewer big machines. We may need to revert to draft horses, oxen, and mules as well, which will require care and feeding, with a significant amount of acreage devoted to growing animal feed. Food production will come closer to the center of our economy than it has for generations.

Shuttering the Metroplexes

Meanwhile, our big “metroplex” cities will run into as much trouble as the suburbs, but for different reasons. Categorically, they are not scaled to the energy realities of the future. Our giant cities are products of the cheap energy era; the arc of their explosive growth since 1945 is self-evident. They’re simply too large and too complex. Everything about them is designed to run on endless supplies of cheap fossil fuels and the resources and byproducts made possible by them: steel, copper, cement, plastic, and asphalt. To support daily life, they require far-flung supply chains dependent on complex transport systems. Like it or not, we are entering an era of reduced complexity, and a lot of the systems we now depend on—from factory livestock to “warehouses on wheels”—simply won’t exist anymore.

These giant cities will contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts, if they are fortunate to have them. Remember: cities traditionally exist where they do because they occupy sites of geographical and strategic importance, such as Detroit’s position on a short stretch of river between two great lakes. Some kind of settlement will continue to exist in most of these places, but not in the form we’re familiar with. They will be urban in the traditional sense of the word: compact, dense, mixed-use, and composed of neighborhoods based on the quarter-mile walk from center to edge—the so-called five-minute walk, which is a transcultural norm found everywhere in pre-automobile urban communities. The pattern is scalable: one neighborhood is the equivalent of a village; several neighborhoods and a commercial district make a town; and many neighborhoods comprise an average-sized city.

The decline of cheap fuels will lead to the demise of the trucking system and commercial aviation. Forget about biodiesel, algae oil, and similar fantasies. They don’t scale up beyond the science-project level. We’ll have to move more stuff (and people) by rail and boat. Waterfronts and harbors will once again become important in daily life. In North America, this applies especially to our inland waterways, including the linked Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio Rivers (one of the most extensive such networks in the world), the St. Lawrence River, the Hudson–Erie Canal system, and the Great Lakes. In terms of climate change, the inland waterways will be less threatened by changes in sea level than our saltwater ports. As the global economy withers, economic activity is likely to become more internally focused anyway.

It remains to be seen what rising sea levels will do to the great harbor cities of New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore. They have some topography to protect them, but they could lose a lot of real estate. The picture is a lot swampier for Miami, Jacksonville, Charleston, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Houston. For decades, we’ve been redeveloping America’s decrepit waterfronts with condo towers, festival marketplaces, concert stages, and bikeways. Whoops. We’ll have to go back and restore the infrastructure we demolished for waterborne trade: the landings, warehouses, dry docks, and even the sleazy accommodations for sailors.

Some newer U.S. cities occupy unfavorable sites, and they will simply go out of business. Phoenix’s fate is sealed: without mass motoring and cheap air conditioning, it will collapse. You can’t grow food in the desert without heroic irrigation, and all their water comes from elsewhere and at great expense. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over for the same reasons. Both of these cities will become small, remote outposts. Given its likely isolation, whatever happens in Vegas will likely remain in Vegas in the future as well. Denver exists in the first place because of the logistics of cattle ranching and railroads. If the Southwest gets drier, as predicted, that city may wither, too.

Other cities composed largely of suburban sprawl also face unfortunate futures, particularly in the Sun Belt—that part of the U.S. that grew explosively after the Second World War. Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and other sprawl cities are hugely disadvantaged. On top of a bad development pattern, recent construction quality is atrocious—chipboard, vinyl, and “innovative” spray-on finishes. In the humid Southeast, air conditioning vies with heat on exterior walls to condense moisture in the framing, causing buildings to rot from the inside out and become uninhabitable. In Florida, foreclosed houses often decay in months as humidity infiltrates the drywall and mold grows. People who seek refuge in the Sun Belt states as our energy problems worsen may be disappointed by how things work out there.

Since the wealth of these newer cities is largely represented by sprawl, a tragic amount of political and financial capital will likely be squandered to prop it up. This will amount to a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable. It’s already happening via enormous government life-support of the housing industry and stimulus dollars poured into highway projects. We should instead concentrate efforts on fixing our passenger rail network and developing local public transit.

Southern California is in a category of its own, with dire water politics exacerbating the liabilities of suburban sprawl. Much has been made of the relatively high population density of Los Angeles. But on the whole, the city is just too big, too spread out, too car-addicted, too thirsty, too primed for ethnic friction, and too dependent on imported supplies of everything. A favorable outcome for Los Angeles might be a network of much smaller towns connected by public transit, much like the original City of Angels—except that history is not symmetrical and the sheer inertia of disintegration might drag LA beyond any desirable reset point.

Towers of Babel

One big surprise awaiting us is how quickly the skyscraper will become obsolete. Even the architecture profession does not yet recognize the problem. It’s not primarily because of issues of heating and air conditioning, or running so many elevators, though electric service may be less reliable in the U.S. a decade from now. Rather, it’s because these buildings will never be renovated. Reduced energy resources means proportionately reduced capital in the system. We’ll be painfully short of financial resources and fabricated materials—everything from steel to the silicon gaskets needed to seal glass “curtain walls.” Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most “innovative” by today’s standards—the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems—will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new “green buildings.” We have no idea what we’re going to do about this dilemma. There’s no public awareness about it whatsoever.

In 2004, The New Yorker published a hugely influential piece called “Green Manhattan.”  Reporter David Owen wrote: “New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest in the world.” This was due, he said, to the efficiencies of apartment towers and the ability to get around on foot—a notion that Harvard economist Edward Glaeser seconded in his recent book Triumph of the City.

While I’d agree that tight, dense, and walkable urbanism is crucial for our future happiness, it’s a tragic error to suppose that stacking people in skyscrapers is necessary to achieve this. Most of central Paris is under six stories and nobody complains about a lack of cosmopolitan verve there. The infatuation with skyscrapers is just another facet of the technological grandiosity that pervades American culture these days—the dangerous idea that we are unbounded by limits. It is this sort of mentality that’s gotten us into deep trouble with extreme car dependency and massive oil imports.

All this points back to the issue of scale. New York is already too big and too tall. Central Chicago has similar problems. The temptation to maximize investment returns on the floor-to-area ratio of buildings—the number of stories you can stack on, say, a one-acre building lot—had the unintended consequence of producing too many tall buildings with an unsound future. As with suburbia, we built skyscraper cities because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and for a while it penciled out economically. This is no longer the case. All our big cities will contract, but for cities full of skyscrapers this contraction will be especially painful.

As in 1925, today’s cities-of-the-future are also preposterous fantasies. Take for example the proposed “Aerotropolis” described in a book by the same title. Two decades ago, business professor John Kasarda noticed that the Federal Express company revitalized the dying economy of Memphis, Tennessee. His conclusion? Successful cities of the future must be organized around airports. Aerotropolis is once again yesterday’s tomorrow. It assumes that cheap transport is a reliable constant as far ahead as we can see, which I doubt. The author is apparently oblivious to today’s irreversible global oil predicament and the effect it is already having on commercial aviation. Airlines in the U.S. have been contracting for a decade by merging, dropping routes, and firing so many employees that it is nearly impossible to find a live one nowadays in an airport concourse.

I can’t see how this situation will improve. I’d say there’s a fair chance that commercial aviation won’t even exist in twenty years. Airplanes require oil. We have fantasies about running them on substitutes like distilled coal liquids—because, people say, Germany powered the Luftwaffe with coal liquids toward the end of the Second World War. Again, it’s a matter of scale. Running the Luftwaffe through all of 1944/45 probably required less fuel than does running trucks in and out of Providence, Rhode Island, on any given week. American cities will be lucky if they can organize their future activities around railroads and waterways.

Feeding the Future

Speaking of technofantasies, another popular proposal is for skyscraper farms. The fiasco of suburbia sowed a lot of confusion in how we think about our human habitat. It hopelessly muddled the distinction between urban and rural. A manifestation of this confusion is the notion that we should focus our resources on growing food in “vertical farms” in the midst of our cities.

The problems we face with skyscrapers in terms of capital resources argue against this idea in the first place. Add to that the need to provide either artificial lighting for plants stacked under many layers of ceilings, or the energy to mechanically rotate them around the outer walls to expose them to sunlight. It is a particularly dumb idea when you consider that there is a practical relationship between cities and their agricultural hinterlands, where crops can be grown horizontally on the earth itself, without elaborate structures, artificial lighting, or high-tech gadgetry. The vertical farming idea is a demonstration of how extreme our technograndiosity has become, and how far we’ve strayed from centuries of accumulated wisdom.

Growing food on city rooftop gardens is fine but limited. Urban kitchen and dooryard gardens are historically quite customary. Community gardens on empty lots are a swell idea. But we better get our heads straight about where most of the food will have to come from, especially when a lot more of it will have to be grown locally. The appropriate place for that is outside of town. There’s a big difference between gardening and farming. Some activities are essentially rural and some urban, and we need to reestablish this distinction.

Our confusion about this distinction is visible in proposals to turn Detroit into farmland. Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again. And there’s plenty of adequate farmland outside Detroit in rural Michigan to serve it.

Tomorrow’s Yesterday

The Congress for the New Urbanism coalesced as a formal organization in 1993 to offer an alternative to suburban sprawl. As a battle of ideas, the New Urbanists eventually won by default when the housing bust put an end to further suburbanization. The New Urbanism is now simply urbanism. There is no other body of coherent principle that can produce human habitats that have a plausible future. Still, sheer human perversity manages to generate opposition from predictable interest groups.

Harvard has been battling the New Urbanists for two decades on the grounds that traditional urban design is insufficiently avant-garde, intellectually unadventurous, politically retrograde, technologically naive, lacking in sex appeal, square. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is now pushing a dubious new practice they call “Landscape Urbanism.” Don’t be fooled. So-called Landscape Urbanism incorporates lots of high-tech “magic” infrastructure for directing water flows and requires massive, costly, complex site interventions. It’s explicitly against density and vehemently pro-automobile. It’s just super-high-tech suburbia in the guise of environmentally avant-garde high art. Naturally it comes with heaps of opaque theory, designed to mystify and impress the nonelect.

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

The requirements for this will be pretty straightforward. It doesn’t call for “critical theory,” as the grad schools refer to metaphysical thinking these days, but rather practical skill and common sense. The mandates of reality are telling us very clearly that the age of fossil fuel magic is drawing to a close, with huge implications for how we occupy the landscape. It also implies a timeout for the kind of rapid technological change that has come to seem normal for us. This necessary timeout is probably the only thing that will prevent us from destroying the planet we call home. We’re suffering profoundly from too much magic.

The infatuation with technomagic in our visions of the future city has paradoxically produced places with no magic, no power to enchant the human spirit. The city of slick glass skyscrapers may inspire a certain crude awe, as anything gigantic might. But go to the tower districts of Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and I guarantee you will not find anything like enchantment. What you’ll find is sterility, a vacuum, a fiasco of unintended consequences. It turns out that the human spirit needs texture, not sleekness in its dwelling place, and it needs things human-sized to feel truly human, and despite all the striving to escape that, it is exactly what we’re going to get.

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James Howard Kunstler is the author of several books, including The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and The Witch of Hebron.

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