A walk down Main Street in Great Barrington will never be quite the same after taking one with James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler, a critic of urban design and the author of The Geography of Nowhere, recently visited our office and had lunch with the Orion staff. Afterward, he and a few of us headed out for a short tour to see how his ideas about architecture and community design played out in our hometown.
We stopped in the center of town, and Kunstler looked around. “As far as Main Streets in this part of the world go,” he announced after a moment, “this is about as good as it gets.” It was unclear how this was supposed to make us feel. He pointed out a number of things that work: allées of trees, straight sightlines, a vibrant variety of retailers selling goods that people actually need, and design motifs that make people want to be where they are. He praised the town’s multistory buildings (which encourage high-density use) and the existence of a railroad (albeit one that moves only freight, not passengers).
Ultimately, however, Kunstler is less a design critic than a futurist. (See his article in this issue, “Back to the Future,” for more in that vein.) His eye gravitates to those things that are inconsistent with a future that he is sure we are headed toward—in particular, a future that is far less dependent on the automobile and fossil fuels than our present is. As eighteen-wheelers rumbled by, he described the town’s parking lots as “transition sites” and reflexively speculated on how those sites will be used thirty years hence. (The fact that Great Barrington residents have squabbled mightily over a planned downtown reconfiguration that would sacrifice a few parking spaces does not suggest a community that is preparing for a post-oil future. Nor does our new school that for all intents and purposes can only be accessed by motor vehicle.) He pointed out the boundary between the older part of downtown and the one built in the last half-century and, turning to the newer section, pointed out the cheap, low-density, poorly designed buildings that characterize it—buildings, that in Kunstler’s words, “aren’t worth caring about.”
When do we stop building the kinds of communities that reinforce habits that degrade our lives and warm the atmosphere? What kinds of places are worth caring about, and how do we start making them? These are questions that need to be asked daily, by federal regulators, regional planning commissions, town councils, and every person who walks down their Main Street and sees a reflection not only of where they are, but who they are. The definition of planning implies a future—a future that is better than the present, one presumes, or else why bother. Which goes straight to the question, should anyone engaged in planning still be working under the assumption that cheap fossil fuels are a given, much less a necessity? And why are so few communities engaged in planning for life beyond the car?
When we take to the streets of our communities, shouldn’t we feel not only a sense of pride, but of principle? Shouldn’t we feel a sense of home that encompasses the past, the present, and especially the future—a sense that our places are being made and remade to reflect the best of who we are and who we aim to become?
Yes of course there is a very long way to go when it comes to re-shaping towns and cities to fit the post-oil, low carbon, eco-friendly future. But at least Great Barrington is a pedestrian-friendly town, and that’s a good start. I was there last year and was grateful to be able to walk from my motel (on Rte 7, opposite Friendly’s)all the way through town and out the other side to Guido’s on pleasant, safe sidewalks. I have been in many US towns where pedestrians seem to be an extinct species and everything, from food to banks to mailboxes is drive-up, and as someone who doesn’t drive I always find that really alienating.
Here in the South, we all know that only po’ folks, the insane and criminals walk anywhere!
What has always been interesting to me as I walk and ride around my city is the large number of use trails you can see, snaking between parking lots, along ditches and through thickets. Fences get cut where access is blocked, property lines are disregarded and wanton trespass is just part of the deal. They’ve always given me a lift to see them. People will always read the land better than any “plan” could hope to do. Children especially enjoy the feeling of ownership that comes with using them. I guess I just never outgrew that feeling also.
As one who witnessed my hometown evolved from a scenic lake to anywhere USA, I will forever wonder why people come to a place of beauty, then proceed to develop the area until it looks just like the retail nightmare they say they wanted to leave behind. I’d bet many others have also had this experience. Will humankind ever learn? I doubt it!