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An Essay on Cities

Posted on Oct 31, 2019 in Zoning and Building Codes , Suburbia , November-December 2019

As part of American Renewal, a new policy and opinion project by the Daily Caller News Foundation, the Daily Caller published The Landscape Of Despair: How Our Cities And Towns Are Killing Us By James Howard Kunstler

The full article is at

An Excerpt:

There are well-established methods for the design and assembly of human habitats that are worth living in, but you get very little of that in the USA. Even our “best” cities have become demolition derbies. What is especially absent, as I have averred to earlier, is artistry consciously applied to our surroundings. You can lay some of the blame for that on the dogmas of modernism, since the schools of architecture are marinated in it, especially the hatred of ornament, which means we’re forbidden a visual language to communicate our connection to nature (that is, everything in the universe). In fact, modernism has amounted to a campaign to explicitly denature the human project. That impulse probably derives from the raw human carnage unleashed in two 20th century world wars, which so shamed and horrified the survivors that they wanted to run shrieking from history itself. The neurotic reaction is the wish to scrub any signs of dangerous human expression from the buildings we live among. Along with that, we have erased anything that might amount to charm, the quality of being grateful to be alive in the first place. A life without charm is a zombie existence spent in places not worth caring about.

Another big chunk of blame can be assigned to officialdom and its zoning and building codes, which in most jurisdictions tends to absolutely mandate a suburban outcome (e.g. if you want to build a store, the law says you’d better supply twenty parking spaces). From this, an ethos emerges of the human habitat as an administrative abstraction. You end up living in a mere diagram of a place, not a place. Mostly though, what you’re seeing is an absence of thought and care. The codes are there to do your thinking for you. The hypothetical town hall I mentioned above may be just such a one-story cinder-block building out in the suburban gloaming, with eight-foot ceilings studded with sprinklers, dismal fluorescent lighting, and crummy plastic furniture. The room is a mere “facility.” It lacks any true typological identity. The town officials can’t imagine it matters if public meetings are held in a room that speaks expressively to citizens of their history in wood, stone and bronze.

But it does matter. Because every crummy town hall in America on a boulevard of chain stores damages the public realm and what it represents: the common good. The public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good. When you dishonor the public realm, you will dishonor the common good, and that is exactly how it has gone with us for the past several generations. And that damage has now manifested in grotesque crimes against the public in the public realm.

It’s not incidental that some of our worst buildings are the giant centralized schools, designed as if they were aircraft assembly plants or insecticide factories. They are ill-conceived in too many ways to count. Their size alone creates an alienating zone of estrangement in which students are ciphers rather than persons. This manner of supposed education sets off some of the worst tribal instincts in the kids, who desperately need to identify with something. And there is always a leftover cohort of kids who either can’t identify with others in such a bewildering setting, or are rejected by the tribes and cliques that self-organize as a defense against estrangement. These schools are run like prisons, with the students rotating from room-to-room at the harsh signal of a bell or buzzer every fifty minutes, often literally locked inside. More and more, the curriculum consists of crude political indoctrination that even fifteen-year-olds can tell is phony and insulting. Is there more than a tiny chance that some of the kids subjected to this alienating environment, and these pressures, might grow homicidally enraged at those around them?

Then consider the milieu outside of school: a tract house in some dreary matrix of identical houses physically separated from the civic and commercial infrastructure of the “town” (if you can even call it that) by the zoning laws. If the two-parent household is intact (statistically unlikely), both parents are liable to be at work when that alienated kid is delivered home by the yellow school bus. He’s too young to have driver’s license, and anyway none of the family cars are available, so he’s stuck there. At home, the kid has access to movies and TV shows that valorize acts of extreme violence, or he can play video games in which he gets to play the “shooter,” which can amount to tactical training for mass murder. When that gets boring, he can divert himself with free online porn and self-pleasuring, which afterward only tends to re-emphasize his aloneness, lack of connection, and desperate longing for affection and meaning. He knows he did not create this socially impoverished environment and all its punishments. Perhaps the kid has been able to score drugs at school, another layer of reality distortion. After a dinner by himself of microwaved burritos — mom and dad have long commutes — he listens to some “death metal” music or some rap about being a violent gangster. He falls asleep immersed in grievances and fantasies about avenging them.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Kunstler has also written about Seaside.