The New Urbanists are a bunch of architects and urban planners who think we need to start planning for the end of the automotive era. That we’re not doing this, they say, is us taking the expressway to Doomsday.
Wait! Stop the Expressway construction! I have petitions! Cram these up your craw, Robert Moses!
Jacobs was a Columbia University grad, living in New York City, and upset about the changes she saw going on around her. Urban planning of the day focused on tearing down old neighborhoods to build new expressways, and sequestering out zones for big housing developments from zones for commercial use. Jacobs thought that mixed-use neighborhoods like Greenwich Village (where shops, townhouses and cafes sit side-by-side) were much more livable for actual humans than the cold, Stalin-esque designs of the city planners. Much of the public agreed, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities became a best-selling phenomenon.
What is especially interesting to this blogger is that, in 2004, at age 87, Jacobs was not through thinking and writing about our experiment with the modern world.
Did Jacobs mellow with time? Did she maybe come to the conclusion things weren’t so bad after all – that maybe the only problems in the world were the noisy teenagers across the street and why don’t the grandkids visit more often?
You don’t have to look further than the title of her 2004 book for the answer: Dark Age Ahead.
Second Verse, Much Worse Than the First
In Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs pinpoints five collapsing pillars of American (and Western in general) society. These pillars are what our current world is based on, and when they fall, we’ll be sprung back into a new Dark Age of ignorance and poverty. Her five pillars are:
The Family/Community – Families should be strong units that work and save together for the future; now they’re just temporary economic arrangements whose main purpose is piling on debt. Communities should work together; now they’re just random neighbors engaged in a “let’s see who can pile on the most debt” contest.
Education – Universities should be genuinely concerned with the intellectual development of their charges. Now, they’re just credential farms for binge-drinking enthusiasts who need a stamp on a piece of paper so they can get entry-level office jobs later.
Science – Science should be an unbiased quest to understand the mysteries of the universe. Instead, it’s a professionalized, politicized world where conflicts of interest abound.
Government – Do I even need to explain?
Professional Accountability – Doctors should be bound by the Hippocratic oath, lawyers to the law, and corporate execs to basic standards of human decency. Instead, it’s a “get in while the gettin’s good” free-for-all for the learned professions.
But the New Urbanists strive to build cities, not websites. How do they go about communicating their plans to the rest of society, and making their vision a reality? Reading through their websites gives a clear picture of what their strategy is.
This helpful flow-chart below will guide your through the grand strategy of the New Urbanists.
Step 1) Hold Meetings
These guys and gals love meetings. To visit any of their websites is to find a calendar filled with lectures, presentations, meet-and-greets, working sessions, talks, skills-exchange workshops, and the like.
At these meetings, be on the lookout for who’s in the audience. Is the mayor there? Is a voting quorum of the local zoning committee in the room? Head of the sewage authority? President of the electric company? You’ll want to probe them to find out if they’re on board with the ideas presented. Now proceed to the flowchart.
Step 2) Reach Out to Your Networks
OK, so not everyone in town is on Team New Urb yet. Take the people you met at the meeting who are on your side and form up working groups. Gather together your like-minded architects and city planners.
CNU New York alone has four working groups (Outreach, Communication, Events, and Finance). The Outreach Committee is tasked with “[making] bridges to new potential members and organizations” – and notice two of the other three are outward-facing as well. So fire up those personal and professional networks! Bring others on board. Now return to the flowchart.
Step 3) Distribute Materials (Free!)
Everyone likes free stuff that helps them do their jobs better (especially the good workers) and easier (especially the slacker-minded). The New Urbanists’ suite of websites are awash with goodies for urban planners. There are best practices guides, charts, PDFs, and forums for personal expert consultation on “Things This Blogger Doesn’t Know What They’re Talking About” like infill ratios and CIP budgeting.
Most impressive is the SmartCode at http://www.smartcodecentral.org. Here, founding New Urbanist Andres Duany turns his firm’s extraordinarily detailed “transect-based planning and regulatory tool” into an open-source document. It’s a gutsy move of putting principle over profit. Not many firms of any kind seem very keen on giving away their proprietary playbook to competitors for free.
So, now you’ve given your audience everything they need to do their jobs better, warming their attitudes toward you and your ideas in the process. Back to the chart:
Step 4) Hit the Pavement
Oh dear. Still no traction? Are you sure you didn’t screw up somewhere along the way? Were you a dick to everyone in Step 2?
Look, nevermind. Let’s push forward.
If you’ve made it to Step 4 and still don’t control the local levers of power, you’re in a tough spot. Now the only answer is the rigorous application of elbow grease.
Here’s an example of how to do that. Go ahead and throw “Oak Cliff, Dallas, TX” into Google Maps. What you’ll find is a perfectly square (both literally and figuratively) slice of suburbia in the maw of the Dallas/Forth Worth exurban sprawl. Now look what these enthusiastic New Urbanists from the Better Block initiative did with it:
Yes, there is something fundamentally sad about building a Potemkin Village of a vibrant main street when the city won’t let you build an actual vibrant main street. But you’re on Step 4 here, buddy – your time for carping ended two Steps ago. So call your friends in vibrant ethnic bongo bands, prepare to put about 40 gallons of paint on your credit card, and roll up your sleeves, bucko. If it takes throwing a street fair every day until they let you build your fucking bike lanes, that’s what you’re going to do.
To understand what makes the New Urbanists not just boring civic planners with a fetish for outdoor cafes and bike lanes, but honest-to-gosh doomsayers, you have to understand two central tenets of their ideology. These are the concepts of Peak Oil and theInfrastructure Ponzi Scheme.
See, to the New Urbanists, it’s not just that big box store parking lots are icky and spiritually un-uplifting (filled as they are with fat people suckling Big Gulps wedged in their car’s drink holders instead of taking the damned walk that would probably do them some damned good).
It’s more that the entire financial model underlying the existence of big box stores in the suburbs is unsustainable. And the longer we hang on to this model, the more doomed we are.
Fit of Pique
Their first reason why is the concept of Peak Oil. It’s easy enough to understand. Oil is a finite resource. There is only so much of this goo in the ground, and just about all the easily scoop-up-able oil has already been scooped up. Going after what’s left requires difficult engineering feats like drilling holes a mile under the sea, leading to occasional catastrophes and making oil more expensive. Very soon, it will be too expensive to support your daily 45-minute commute.
Peak Oil is not a new idea. Four decades ago, an influential panel of MIT scientists predicted in Limits to Growth that our oil would run out early in the new millennium. Later, some guy named Hubbert came up with a “Hubbert Curve” that predicted 2005 as the peak.
But history has been confounding Peak Oil Predictors so far. A Businessweek article from January 26, 2012 tells you why “Everything you know about peak oil is wrong,” as America has actually been rollin’ in the stuff lately. And a Foreign Policyarticle from just yesterday noted that 2011 was a banner year for energy efficiency: for the first time, Americans voluntarily reduced their oil consumption outside of a recession.
Our Lousy, Crumbling Roads
If the oil doesn’t run out, however, New Urbanists say we’re still boned. Even in a rosy utopian future where we’re all zipping around in stylish electric cars personally designed by the re-animated ghost of Steve Jobs, we still couldn’t afford to keep up the roads we’d need to drive them on.
Executive Director of the Strong Towns non-profit group Chuck Marohn is a civil engineer and a leading explainifier of why. These are the sort of brutal facts he’ll shove down your truth-hole:
The Minnesota bridge collapse of 2007. This is a thing that actually happened.
a) The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” grade in a 2009 report.
b) It will take $2.2 trillion just to make the repairs we need to make over the next five years just to stay at a “D.”
c) We don’t really have $2.2 trillion dollars right now, so we’re not even going to do that.
d) Long-term liabilities 10, 20, 30 years from now for keeping our infrastructure up is exponentially worse than that $2.2 tril.
e) For some reason, instead of fixing all that, we are still building more stuff that will need to be fixed in 20-30 years.
Marohn likens how we got into this sorry situation to a Ponzi scheme. For complete details why, watch a TED talk he gave or listen to a Strong Towns podcast of his testimony before the “I’ll bet they’re a fun bunch” panel the Minnesota Legislature House Property and Local Tax Division.
But here’s the gist of how the Ponzi scheme operates.
Local developers want to build something so they can get money. Local politicians want to make that happen so they can get votes. They can’t pay for new roads or office parks, but they can usually fudge enough on a grant application to get it funded by the state or fed bureaucrats beholden to other vote-panderers. The theory is that the tax revenue from the new development will repay all this in time, but no one at any part of the process has any incentive to think 30 years in the future. So, per Chuck, “the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability.”
Right now we’re paying for this scam by taking on debt. So when the markets stop playing along…it starts with a “D,” it ends with an “OOM,” and buddy, it ain’t “droom.”
James Howard Kunstler is not an architect; he’s an author and podcaster whose worldview dovetails with the New Urbanists’. They share a common enemy: what Kunstler derisively dubs “happy motoring.” AAAAArrrggGG! The infuriating very idea of suburbia! This mass-hysterical myth that it can be sustained past our present era of Peak Oil and global economic crisis!
It makes Jimmy angry. And that’s a good thing, because he’s a hilarious writer when he’s in angry mode.
Kunstler's thoughts on you probably end with the phrase "...and the car you rode in on"
First off, you might have thought 2011 was a fairly smooth year. Nope. “On close examination, the industrial world underwent complete zombification in 2011. Its member states and their institutions are now lurching across the stage of history like so many walking dead.” In this aftermath of the 2011 collapse, “the USA is diving into an economic depression that will make the 1930s look like a Busby Berkeley production number.”
Regions of the world Kunstler tags as potential flash-points of Doom in 2012: Europe. Turkey. Iran. Israel. The Middle East in general. The USA. China. Mexico. Russia. Japan. India/Pakistan. Brazil. You get the idea.
Where will this all end? “Wrap your mind around life in an economy organized around farming, with a much sparser distribution of big urban centers, and far fewer people overall. Don’t imagine for a moment that your grandchildren will be zinging across the landscape in electric cars sampling one theme park after another while “networking” with “friends” on cyborg social networks implanted in their brain jellies. Think of them grooming their mules in the summer twilight.”
Kunstler’s Kritics – A Lesson for Doomsayers Everywhere
Well, Kunstler’s critics rightly point out that he’s been in the doom-and-gloom business for a long time. In the late 90’s, he was convinced the Y2K bug would wipe out the modern world as we know it. When that didn’t pan out, he didn’t throw away his “JHK’s doomy rhetoric” mix-tape – he just found a way to play it out of the New Urbanist’s boombox instead of the Y2Kers. A quick glance through Clusterfuck Nation’s archives shows that Kunstler has been throwing out predictions of imminent doom on the reg for years.
He even admitted as much in his 2012 Predictions post:
“Longtime readers of this blog know how much I love predicting the Dow Jones Industrial Average to crash down to 4000 every year. I never disappoint – though I am often disappointed.”
And that’s an important lesson that other doomsayers chronicled on this blog can learn from.
Specific, measurable predictions of doom = dangerous.
Vague, unproveable doom scenarios = where you want to be.
Always keep your predictions in the near-but-unspecified future. That will keep people on edge and interested in what you have to say, without giving them cause to dismiss you if your timing is off. Whatever you do, don’t set a date to anything.
(Bonus Question for alert readers: so, chastened by his record, what was JHK’s Dow prediction for 2012? That’s right: 4000; as a stop-over for 1000 by 2014).