The End of Suburbia As We Know It? In the future, many suburbs will be 'toast,' says one author.
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The End of Suburbia As We Know It?

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The End of Suburbia As We Know It?

The End of Suburbia As We Know It?

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New reports indicate that the high price of gas, for the first time in a long time, is convincing people to drive less. It's not unforeseeable that gas prices may have an impact on where Americans live. Our next guest says the suburbs as we know them may not be around for much longer. James Howard Kunstler has written more than a dozen books, many of them about the everyday environment. His latest nonfiction work, "The Long Emergency," deals with the global oil predicament as one of the most converging catastrophes of the 21st century. Thanks for joining us, James Howard Kunstler.

Mr. JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER (Author, "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century"): Nice to be here.

PESCA: OK. Before we go any further, I'm going to play a little bit of sound. Let's backtrack to the early days of suburbia.

(Soundbite of promotional film Redbook Magazine's "In the Suburbs")

Unidentified Man: Life in the suburbs has its good moments, and others not so good.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Boy: Oh no!

Unidentified Man: Discouraged? Disgruntled? Heck, no! They're glad to be here.

PESCA: That's a televised guide that Redbook Magazine put out in the 1950s. I don't know if kids once talked like that, or just our portrayal of kids, gee willickers (ph), Mr. Kunstler! But you know, as we look at today there are soaring oil prices, the rise in food prices, is there still reason to be glad that, you know, the suburbs exist?

Mr. KUNSTLER: It's not funny anymore. You know, what it really represents - of course, you know, they're not going to go away overnight.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. KUNSTLER: They're there, and the Jolly Green Giant isn't going to pick them up and move them closer to anything, but we have to think about what they really represent in our history and in our destiny. I refer to them as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world, and I say that because we've invested all of our post-World War II wealth in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future, and it's an enormous problem for us.

PESCA: That certainly grabbed my attention, but I can't go on without - and we'll get to the suburb issue, but when you compare it to things like - that kind of statement, things like some of the Maoist revolutionary reforms, the pyramids, slavery, these were misallocations of resources, certainly worse than the suburbs, no?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Well, yeah, but comparing the suburbs to that doesn't make the problem any less great.

PESCA: OK. And so the prob...

Mr. KUNSTLER: You know, all you're doing really is underscoring the persistence of human folly.

PESCA: So tell me about why you think the suburbs are such a folly, and why they weren't just a natural outgrowth of, you know, people want a place to live that's less dirty than the city, and maybe safer than...

Mr. KUNSTLER: See, they weren't a natural outgrowth.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. KUNSTLER: In fact, you know, like most things in human history, they were an emergent self-organizing phenomenon, responding to the conditions of the time, which, for us, were cheap oil for about 75 years, and cheap land on a large continent, and you know, that's what allowed us to organize these places in the hinterlands of our town and cities. What was the second part of your question?

PESCA: Well, the second part of my - yeah, so there was the natural outgrowth, but what I want to get to is, you know, where do you think they're going in the future? Are they unsustainable now? They soon will be. Why are you so negative on the suburbs?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Well, it's self-evident that we are going to have permanent problems with oil and gasoline, and the prime resources that are needed to run the American suburbs. And we're just not going to be able to run them. You know, it's just unfortunate, it's tragic, but it's the truth.

PESCA: So, will they turn into ghost towns? What do you think will happen?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Well, I - you know, look, they're not going to go away overnight, and there's going to probably be an enormous campaign mounted to sustain the unsustainable, because of - because our investments are so great. I think you have to understand something that I call the psychology of previous investments, the psychology of previous investments. It means that you put so much of your resources, and even invested your identity, in this certain way of living that you can't really let go of it.

PESCA: Yeah, and...

Mr. KUNSTLER: And we're going to see an enormous effort to sustain it, even in the face of incredible obstacles. And that in itself is going to be a big problem, because we're going to squander a lot of our remaining and dwindling resources in that attempt.

PESCA: In poker they call it ch - throwing good money after bad.


PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. KUNSTLER: But you know, eventually, what I think we're going to see is that the suburbs will have, you know, three destinies, not necessarily all mutually exclusive.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. KUNSTLER: They will either be slums or salvage yards or ruins.

PESCA: Will they rot from the outside in? In other words, first the exurbs, then the suburbs, maybe to the edge of the city?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Well, I don't know if you can systematically call it that way, you know. Even though these places are typologically very similar, you know, they share some different characteristics. You will see different things happen in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, than you will see in, you know, the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

PESCA: I think urban-renewal people kind of look at Minneapolis or St. Paul, and those places are doing good, but maybe they look at Cincinnati and St. Louis, and they say, oh, it's such a shame, we have these, you know, big huge buildings here, and these wide streets, and no one's here certainly at night or on weekends, and then they look at Mesa, Arizona, and it just seems more artificial. But there are more people living in Mesa, Arizona, than any of those cities I named. Democracy is, you know, it's ruled by the people, not ruled by the structures. So do we have, I don't know, a nostalgia for cities that, for whatever demographic reasons, time has left behind?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Well, whatever you're seeing now does not necessarily paint a picture of what will happen in the future. You know, you have to careful about that. And my own view of the equation between the cities and the suburbs in the future is rather different than the conventional view. I think what we'll see is very different. I think we will see a reversal of a 200-year trend of people moving from the small towns and the farms to the big cities.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. KUNSTLER: A reversal of that. I think what we're going to see is that our big cities will densify (ph) at their centers and along their waterfronts, if they have them, but they will, at the same time, substantially contract, and people will be returning to the smaller cities, the smaller towns, and to an agricultural landscape that will be inhabited differently than it is today.

PESCA: So, you say - so, does this mean - let's take my city, New York City. Maybe the population in New York will shrink and densify, but populations of towns like, what, Newark, will grow. Is that what you mean by the smaller cities?

Mr. KUNSTLER: Yeah, actually, New York - you know, New York presents very, very special problems that are maybe worth talking about.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. KUNSTLER: And I don't think anybody is paying attention to this. It's going to be an enormous problem. The places that are over burdened with skyscrapers...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. KUNSTLER: And mega-structures are also going to be in trouble. You know, we've got a basic problem with the American city, especially the ones that are still, you know, still down there thriving in the Sun Belt. American cities are not scaled to the energy diet of the future. They have become too large. They're over-scaled.

The giant metropolises are not going to - are not going to work very well, and the very special places, and there are few of them, like New York and Chicago, that have too many skyscrapers, are going to have an additional layer of problems, because the skyscraper is not going to work in an economy where we don't have fossil fuels, and in particular, natural gas.

PESCA: Well, we won't - mm - you're so - it's - you're a pessimist...

Mr. KUNSTLER: Yeah, this is something (unintelligible)...

PESCA: Perhaps you are a declinist. We, in history, have been able to innovate our way out of many problems. There've been many people predicting dire consequences. We cleared slums in some cities before they figured out how to do urban renewal. Even places that were written off for dead are becoming revitalized. There's no reason to be optimistic about the future as you look at it?

Mr. KUNSTLER: I'm very optimistic about the future. I'm just not optimistic about the skyscraper as a building typology that is suited for the future. You know, we have a real problem with natural gas in America, in all - in the continent of North America. We are heading down the arc of depletion with natural gas. And as that occurs, it's going to happen very sharply.

The profile with gas is not the same as it is with oil, and you know, natural gas is the only thing that has made it possible for us to build 30- and 40-story condominium towers, because that's the only way you can heat them. And we are also going to have trouble with the electric grid as we move into the future. Twenty percent of our electric power is produced by natural gas. These are things, by the way, which our people, our leaders in business and government, are not thinking about at all.

PESCA: If I am...

Mr. KUNSTLER: And we're going to be blindsided by this problem.

PESCA: If I'm a person listening to this, maybe I'm agreeing with all your predictions, I want to know how to live in the short term. I can't, maybe, afford the priciest part of Phoenix. I can afford a place in Peoria, or Mesa, Arizona. Is there some place I should move, something I should do?

Mr. KUNSTLER: First of all, I've got to address what you're saying here about Arizona. These places in the American Southwest are toast. These are places that are going to have many additional layers of trouble, on top of their troubles with petroleum and energy. The places that will be successful in the future are places, among other things, that have some kind of meaningful relationship to food production, because we're going to have to grow a lot more of our food locally.

The age of the 3000-mile Caesar salad is coming to an end. And you can't do that in Phoenix, and you can't do it in Los Vegas, and you can't do it in Tucson. And these places, you know, they're going to have trouble with cheap air conditioning being over with. Because if you - because if everybody doesn't have air conditioning in these places, you don't have civilization.

PESCA: Jim, we have to wrap it now, and I'll leave it there, but we're going to continue this conversation on our blog. And I want to thank you, OK?

Mr. KUNSTLER: You're welcome.

PESCA: Jim Kunstler delivers lectures and podcasts. He's written a lot of books on the topic, including the "Geography of Nowhere." Thank you very much again. And on the show, we'll be taking to G. Love & Special Sauce, coming to the studio to play some songs from the new album "Superhero Brother" and to share recipes. Plus we'll have all your news headlines. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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