Man in Nature: The Fiasco of Suburbia

Photo by Gregory Crewdson

As a public commentator on suburban sprawl issues I’ve been engaged in a low-grade war of ideas with the environmental community. The fiasco of suburbia, so acute and so damaging to our culture in general, has otherwise intelligent and educated people adopting foolish positions on our national land-use crisis. The most common is the idea that nature is the antidote for problems of bad urbanism.

I need to state this broadly — perhaps too broadly for some — because it includes a number of views which all derive from the same notion: that human nature is something apart from the rest of nature. Paradoxically, this idea expresses something very similar to the mentality of single-use zoning which underlies the fiasco of suburbia in the first place — that human nature and the rest of nature occupy separate and irreconcilable zones.

This was illustrated not long ago, when I was invited to an urban design conference in Spokane. Several guys from the city planning office met me at the airport and then proceeded to take me on a “tour of Spokane.” Only we didn’t get to the city. Instead, we went by car from one scenic view-point to another on the bluffs along the Spokane River. We’d motor along, then all get out of the van and the chief planner would say, with a great sweeping arm gesture, “Look at the magnificent view!” What I realized after a while was that to them all issues of urban design came down to one thing: scenery. Not streets and blocks, not building facades, sidewalks or planting strips. Just scenery. You could have imprisoned these clowns in any basement with a wall-sized photo of Mount Rainier, and they would have been just as delighted. And you could see the results of this mentality in their work: everything built after 1950 in the area was a single-use pod of one sort or another, including the ghastly hotel “complex” where I stayed.

It was shocking to realize how delusional they were, and how deeply it compromised their professional competence. But it’s typical. The confusion out there in America about what is rural and what is urban, what is town and what is country, and what each signifies, has reached an extreme. All the more tragic when you consider that the prime task of people interested in the salvation of any habitat is to answer these questions, and to integrate the human ecology with the larger community of ecologies. We are never going to save the rural places or the agricultural places or the wild and scenic places (or the wild species that dwell there) unless we identify the human habitat and then strive to make it so good that humans will voluntarily inhabit it.

As a formal proposition, the human habitat is the town, the village, the neighborhood, and the city. As things stand now in America, these habitats are so degraded and horrible that anyone with the means to do so has fled, shrieking, to dwell instead in either a rural setting or the mock-rural setting represented by suburbia. This group, it is worth noting, includes a great many “environmentalists” who, due to the blandishments of cheap oil, are able to lead urban lives in distant hinterlands, connected to their needs by large automobiles.

The mentality that views man and nature apart and irreconcilable in terms of land-use is rooted in our culture from the shock of industrial urbanism in the 19th century. American cities are almost wholly a product of that dire process, and the expansion from the period 1830 to 1910 was so traumatic that Americans have yet to recover. Bearing in mind that nothing on the scale of New York or Chicago a hundred years ago had ever been seen before in human history, (not even in imperial Rome, which probably comes closest), the enormity of scale that industry and its accessories assumed by the early 20th century was frightening. Any scholar can see the anxiety and dread of this national experience expressed in the evolution of suburbia, which represents the idea that the remedy for the industrial city is country living, that “nature” is the cure for the awful works of man.

We are still enacting this script. It shows in our lame attempts to decorate the revolting roadscapes of suburbia with installations of “landscaping” one views (with horror) everywhere: the little juniper shrubs in the universal bark-mulch bed deployed in front of a building so depressing and inept that it would dismay even the criminal class of great-granddads’ day. I call these little landscape fantasias nature band-aids. This mentality is alive in the berms and buffers that are so popular with the landscaping industry, of course, but it also shows in more subtle ways.

In my book Home From Nowhere, I took a whole chapter (Nine) to detail the farcical story of how a local environmental group in my town, Saratoga Springs, NY put themselves in the stupid position of advocating a new park across the street from the town’s biggest and best existing park — because they simply couldn’t imagine an urban solution to the problem of a particularly distressed block of city land that had gone through a cycle of debasement culminating in a 1955 strip-mall. This block lay along our town’s main street. What it plainly called for was re-urbanization – namely the erection of traditional main street building types consistent with the stuff already there. But having no faith in urbanism, and having no training in civic design, the environmentalists could imagine only nature as a solution: trees, grass, et cetera (forgetting for a moment that even parks are man-made artifacts).

The larger tragedy of this incident, of course, is that the group in question was composed of the best-educated, most politically progressive people in town. And when you can’t depend on them to think clearly about these issues, then who do you turn to? To the right-wing real estate grifters who would sell their grandmother for a permit to put up a Pizza Hut?

I maintained through all this that a large part of the problem was the group’s name. They called themselves the Open Space Project. Prisoners of their own nomenclature, their solutions could not be urban, i.e., not buildings.

The terms open space and green space are themselves very problematical for a number reasons. They are abstractions. They do not describe anything particular. A farm and a neighborhood square are both “open spaces,” both “green spaces,” but they differ hugely in function, character, and ownership relations with society. In my travels and public appeals, I’ve advocated that we simply drop these two terms from the public discussion because they are too abstract to be meaningful. If we want to talk about preserving rural land or agricultural land then let’s use the appropriate terminology: farms, forests, wetlands. If we’re talking about the human habitat, let’s adopt the vocabulary of urban design: a park, a square, a plaza (distinguished from a square, generally, by its predominate pavings), an Italian garden, a baseball field, a bike trail. If you ask for an abstraction (green space) it will be delivered as an abstraction (grassy berm).

At the bottom of these problems of terminology and self-defeating cultural positions is the need for those who call themselves environmentalists to become knowledgeable and skilled in the design of the human habitat — that is to become urbanists. So far they have resisted, and it shows in the still-uniformly wretched condition of most American towns. For if environmentalists were leading the way, they would be doing more advocacy work in our urban centers, marching for new buildings. Instead, they have been leading the NIMBY wars and striving to insert cartoons of landscape into the urban setting and, of course, choosing to live outside of the traditional town (because that’s the environment — there is even a knucklehead show on our local NPR station called “The Environment Show” which is totally dedicated to nature worship). I know one particular environmental lawyer who did build a new house in town and then strenuously objected to the suggestion that he put trees in the planting strip along the curb in front of his new house. He preferred a landscaping fantasia of pine trees in his front yard, and he even built two mini-berms to accessorize it. His ideological defense of his behavior was based on another idiot notion of current fashion: diversity – the idea that our world would be better if there were absolutely no standards or conventions of human ecology. But the truth is, the community cannot make a decent residential streetscape unless there is agreement, for instance, that all neighbors will respect the need for trees in the planting strip. Diversity is meaningless outside orders of unity, particularly where the human habitat is concerned.

Diversity, for its own sake, is exactly what makes the standard American commercial strip such a ridiculous and tragic place. Many Americans, including the elites, believe that the problem with these landscapes is that “everything looks the same.” That is not the problem. There are lots of places in the world that “look the same”; for instance the hill towns of Tuscany. Nobody comes back from a trip to Italy complaining that the hill towns all looked the same. The urbanism of Baron Haussmann’s Paris is so rigorous that the casual observer could easily mistake the Blvd. St. Germaine for the Blvd. St. Michel, but as far as I can tell, no environmentalist ever came home from Paris complaining that the streets all looked too much the same. The problem with our common American daily environments is not that they are too uniform, but that they are of uniformly miserable quality. Uniform excellence, as in Paris and Tuscany, induces a different state of mind and produces quite a different result.

Quit wasting your time and money on nature band-aids. Stop yammering about open space and green space, and open your mind. Start helping with the task of making American towns and neighborhoods magnificent places to live and work, and move downtown yourself, even if you have to give up one of your mighty SUVs. The antidote to America’s terrible urbanism is, simply, good urbanism.

As a postscript, the downtown block in Saratoga Springs that the Open Space Project wanted to turn into a park some years back is finally being built on. As I write, a five-story building is going up across the street from my office here on Broadway. You may be heartened to know that all the stories above the ground-floor shops will be rental apartments. This is a fabulous opportunity for some of you younger environmentalists to move right into the center of a classic American main street town and set a good example for integral ecology.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere, as well as the novel (his tenth) World Made by Hand. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.