Interview With James Howard Kunstler

Trevor Shaw talks with James Howard Kunstler about what future we might expect for the suburbs.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published February 19, 2005

Interview with James Howard Kunstler


The Province of Ontario has recently drafted a "green-belt protection plan". This will halt sprawl development on the fringes of the Golden Horseshoe Region (Greater Toronto Area) in southern Ontario.

This is a vast area and forces a stop to the traditional suburban development of buying farmland on the fringes of cities, lobbying to get municipal services, then building a typical car dependent sub-division that we are so familiar with, then lobbying for highway/road expansion to accommodate the 'growth'.

The Ontario Provincial Government has recommended higher density and in-fill development as well areas for primary and secondary growth as stated in the "Places to Grow" document. The Golden Horseshoe Region is expected to grow another four million people over the next 25 years, with Hamilton being at the geographic centre of this area and expected to double in size in 25 years.

The Hamilton CMA was home to 662,401 people in 2001 and is expected to reach one and half million by 2025. For the most part the proposed 'Greenbelt' ha s the blessing from the municipalities involved, especially the older urban areas. The home building industry is opposed to it, saying it will increase the cost of homes that will have to be passed onto consumers.

The urban areas have seen a shrinking tax base due to growth beyond the city limits that usually falls within another suburban municipality, resulting in lower property taxes for the suburbs and a type of 'class-war' between cities and their suburbs.

The government amalgamated the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Sudbury with their respective suburbs to form 'super-cities' to hopefully solve some of the problems associated with 'donut growth' policies. However, this has fueled resentment and the suburbs have been experiencing property tax increases in order to pay their share of the urban burdens: social services, policing, and an aging infrastructure.

The problem is the suburban residents don't see themselves as part of the larger urban environment. That is, they are not city dwellers, therefore they feel that they shouldn't have to pay for what they see as a mismanaged city.

The suburbs feel they are exempt from paying for services they don't use. This situation is most emphasized in the city of Hamilton, where amalgamation has been a contentious issue. Hamilton proper has more than 320,000 residents, while the suburbs collectively account for about 185,000, but city council has eight councilors representing the city and seven representing the suburbs, plus one mayor.

The Interview

Trevor Shaw, Raise the Hammer (RTH): The local home-building industry (Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association) has stated that the costs of homes will increase as a result of the 'Greenbelt'. They claim that the average family's 'dream home' will be unaffordable due to rising land costs. Do you think protecting surrounding farmland from future development will result in more expensive and possibly unaffordable housing for average families?

James Howard Kunstler (JHK): The conventional view of this problem, in my opinion, completely misses the reality of the circumstances we are moving into. I would begin by saying check all your assumptions about land development and economic growth at the door.

The salient fact about the decades ahead is that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis and it will change everything about how we live. The suburban cycle which began a hundred years ago is nearly over. We are in for a period of contraction and economic hardship.

There is not going to be a "hydrogen economy," and no combination of alternative energy systems or fuels will allow us to continue the suburban pattern. It's finished. We will, however, desperately need to grow more of our food closer to home, and so the preservation of agricultural hinterlands is of great importance. But don't expect the fiesta of suburban construction to continue more than a few more years. And after that, watch out below...

RTH: I have read from the home developers that the increase in Hamilton's population over the next 25 years amounts to "over 30, Century-21 towers in the downtown" (refering to Hamilton's tallest building the 43 floor Landmark Place), as if this would impose impossible living conditions, however European cities are significantly more dense and more livable. The proposed Greenbelt will inevitably force home builders tochange their business plans. What can be done to provide acceptable housing for an increasing population wit in the existing city limits, including brownfield and in-fill development?

JHK: The skyscraper - any building over seven stories really - will come to be seen as an experimental building type that doesn't work well in an energy-starved economy. Once these energy problems gain traction, there will be a large new class of economic losers, and consequently a lot of social turbulence.

I think we'll see a leveling off and then a contraction of population, not a continued upward trend. Our building practices for the past century have been plain stupid - especially the glorification of the single-family house in a subdivision, at the expense of all other typologies and arrangements.

For instance, the most common type of "affordable housing" in the world comes in the form of apartments over stores, and 99 percent of retail buildings in North America the past sixty years have been one story.

In many places, the zoning prohibits the mixing of retail and residential. This stupidity has been accompanied by stupidities in municipal policy, such as disallowing accessory apartments - under the theory that renters are incapable of behaving decently.

A lot of these practices will have to end, and will by necessity. We will have to make new arrangements, or revive bygone ones. We may, for another example, see the return of the boarding house.

Two decades from now, I doubt that the homebuilding industry, so called, will even exist as we have known it. The increment of new development will be the single building lot, if we are lucky, and most of the codes that are now enforced will be ignored because the redundancies they mandate will not be affordable.

RTH: Do you think home-builders are just building what consumers demand?

JHK: They're building what has been successful for them in the past. By the way, I abhor the word "consumer." Consumers, unlike citizens, have no implicit duties, obligations, or responsibilities to the common good. It's a degrading term. The use of it degrades the public discussion. The builders will continue to behave the way they are used to behaving until reality bitch-slaps them upside their heads. By then, they will all be headed out of business.

RTH: Are we stuck with what we got or do you think it will be possible to retro-fit existing car-dependent suburbs, into walkable, livable neighbourhoods?

JHK: I believe most of suburbia is unreformable and will not be fixed. It represents, after all, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. We built it during our most affluent period of history, and in the decades to come we will be comparatively destitute collectively. In short, we will not have the resources to retrofit most of suburbia.

What's more, we are in for a fiesta of default, repossession, and distress selling of suburban property, much of which will lose its presumed usefulness and monetary value in an energy-scarce economy.

As if that wasn't enough, consider how badly-built suburbia is. Many business buildings are not designed to outlast their tax depreciation periods, and the McHouses are made of particle board, vinyl siding, and stapled-on trim. A lot of suburbia will simply become the slums of the future. Most of the rest will be salvage or ruins.

RTH: Hamilton is the industrial capital (Steel City) of Canada and the ninth largest city. If often looks to Pittsburgh as inspiration for reinventing itself. Do you have any thoughts as to how Hamilton can change its perceived image as a 'dead industrial rust-bucket town'?

JHK: No. The industrial age is over. What follows will be life lived on a much smaller and finer scale. Think 'contraction' and pray that it is not too disorderly.

RTH: How can suburban residents be encouraged to feel part a larger urban area?

JHK: In my view, suburbia in general has very poor prospects. I think it will only become devalued and probably more dangerous. It's chief characteristic was that it represented a living arrangement with no future - and that future is now here.

RTH: We often hear municipal bureaucrats and politicians talking about 'sustainable development', but see minimal implementation of the theory. What is sustainable urban development to you? And is it possible to expect a growing city to occupy a limited amount of space?

JHK: Under the current high energy / high entropy regime, sustainable development is a joke. In the decades to come, the successful places will tend to be the smaller traditional towns and cities with viable farming hinterlands. The economy of the 21st century will come to center on agriculture. Life will be intensely and profoundly local in ways that we can't conceive of today. Economic growth, as we have known it in a cheap energy industrial paradigm, will cease.

RTH: Le Corbusier described the city of the future as consisting of large apartment buildings, isolated in a park-like setting on pilotis, all connected by raised 'streets'. How do you see the future city?

JHK: Corbu was a shit-head. Just about everything he thought about cities was wrong. And the ideas of his that actually found their way into practice were deeply destructive - for instance, the tower-in-a-park, which mutated into the vertical slums of the late 20th century.

Forget Corbu. Forget Modernism. Forget yesterdays' tomorrow. The cities of the future will be much smaller than they are today. It is worth remembering that our cities occupy important sites, and therefore some kind of settlement is liable to be there. Places like Hamilton will contract. A lot of the 20th century buildings, based on heroic HVAC systems, will be unusable.

The medieval town may be a more appropriate model for where we're going.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".

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Read Kunstler's new book. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century

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