There is a movement in Ontario, Canada to preserve what is left of its older buildings, towns and cultural landscapes. Each year two organizations devoted to the cause, Community Heritage Ontario and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, get together to run a conference on a theme, this year being "Heritage in Creative Communities" in Peterborough, Ontario. The theme was set a year ago, and current economic events kind of overwhelmed it. Certainly if you invite James Howard Kunstler as the opening act, you know what the subject is going to be, and it ain't creativity.
Kunstler insists that he is not all doom and gloom, that we can be sensible about how we design our cities and towns, our transportation systems and our food supply and adapt to new conditions. The main problem is what he calls the psychology of previous investment: we have so much invested, financially and emotionally, in the existing way of doing things that we cannot conceive giving anything up.
The wish to keep it all running, all this stuff we have invested in. the infrastructure of motoring. We will look at other ways and other means, the key to understanding is that we are not going to run the malls and the cars on alternate energy, we don't have the money to do it....don’t kill yourself, get real, make other arrangements. We are going to use everything that we have, but it won't be enough. We will not have the money to do the Godzilla schemes, but we have to downscale and localize our lives.
Some of those investments we have made have just not worked out.
We live in the universal automobile slum -the greatest miscallocation of resources in the history of the world. We spent all of our money on a mode of transportation and infrastructure that has no future....It isn't just about driving; commerce, medicine, education, we have to do everything differently.
Notwithstanding all of our cheerleading about the energy efficiency of cities, Kunstler is worried about scale. He sees no future for the skyscraper and suggests that we should not build anything over seven stories- if the elevators don't run you are screwed.
Scale to the energy reality of the future. The many small cities and small towns east of the Mississippi where the infrastructure still exists....The southwest is in so much trouble, they don't have water, they need air conditioning to survive, they can't grow food, they are toast.
As we have noted before, Kunstler is not keen on the proposed investments in high speed rail.
We now have a system that the Bulgarians would be embarrassed by. If we invested in a rail system that ran consistently at 70 miles per hour, left on time and arrived on time, the customers would be deliriously happy.
In the end, he makes a plea for classical design instead clown architecture, the construction of communities that are worthy of affection, architecture that speaks to us in coherent, recognizable patters and textures. Kunstler suggests that we cannot rely on economic growth to save us as it has over the last sixty years; if the economy grows then we need more oil, and we are not going to find another Saudi Arabia every year.
What has happened is that we can no longer service our debt. We are not going to run economies based on revolving debt. The structure of finance loses its legitimacy if there is not more growth, to get something for nothing, to produce things of no value.
We have to produce things of value and make them well, relying on skill rather than technology.
We have laser guided tools and compound mitre saws. The diminishing returns of technology: you get better tools and the work gets worse.
In the end, we have
A big "to do" list of things we have to attend to. It is not about alternative energy and running our cars differently; We are going to have a localized, agricultural economy with more people back on the farm. Commerce will change; the big box is gone. Our buildings will change; we have to use more regional materials found in nature.
One thing about seeing Kunstler in person is that he does tie his whole resume into the presentation, not just his latest book. So there was a lot of discussion about the New Urbanism, about the importance of design, looking at European precedents for designing communities that are not car-centric. It is much more of a whole than our usual cherry-picking of controversial zingers. A positive message does come through, which I paraphrase:
We know how to fix this. We know how to design towns and cities that work for people, that are alive and thriving, not dying. We know how to move people from place to place without depending on cars and airplanes. We know how to build schools that don't look and function like prisons. The difference now is that we no longer have a choice.