Monday, July 13, 2009

The tragedy of suburbia, and how to build a city that improves the environment

Posted mostly for Martin, but this is something which concerns all of us.
I live in the country, and I don't mind it. I love the life of the city itself. I find the suburbs depressing. Kunstler has just articulated why, and done so far better than I could. Oh, and it seems somewhat appropriate that his name is the German word for "artist".

EDIT: This second video is about design in general, but the end explains revolutionary city design. Utterly brilliant, in my opinion.

EDIT 2: Unfortunately, these grand plans have been scrapped. Here's an overview of why.


Martin Magdalene said...

Thank you for this m.e.! I enjoyed William McDonough's green notions - and am hungry for his vision to be realised. I was especially fascinated by his idea of "Technical Nutrition," and "Technical Nutrients" - it's so exciting to encounter a paradigm that is at once more realistic, and more life-affirming. McDonough succeeds in stepping back from the entire process of design and seeing its waste products, its consequences, its messages.

But it was Kunstler that really blew me away - I've watched it three times now. So eloquent, and such a clear diagnosis of the problem of our current living infrastructure. Some of his lines made me burst out laughing: "technosis externality clusterfuck," "There's not enough prozac in the world to make people feel okay about going down this block," and some of them gave me a thrill of comprehension "that's the great non-articulated agony of suburbia and one of the reasons that it lends itself to ridicule because it hasn't delivered what it has been promising for half a century now."

His language was strong - angry - America (and Australia!) is filling up with "places that are not worth caring about." I couldn't help but remember George Carlin saying that America is becoming one giant strip mall where people can just eat and shop and eat and shop, carrying backpacks full of shit they just bought so their hands are free to keep eating. This horrific vision is being played out around us, and we are participating in it.

Australia's relentless addiction to cars - shaping our suburbs, our habits and our attitudes - is almost dystopian. Every space in public seems to be covered over with tarmac or fenced off and commodified. The few public spaces we are afforded - "parks" - are barren golf courses where everything is flat, shorn, visible, G Rated, and covered in litter. Somehow the suburbs replicate themselves though, create their own indispensibility, fence off and flatten the imagination... all the while frightening people inside their houses, bolstering a culture bent on the privatisation of everything. Have we given up on the public altogether?

Kunstler's vision of a more "local" and more "public" future is so hopeful. While it would have been so easy for him to slip into aesthetic fascism (i.e. "this place is ugly whether you think so or not,") I think he avoids this pitfall, preferring instead to consider which places nourish and represent culture, which places speak the better vocabulary of public life. Kunstler believes we are public creatures, and that deep down we care about public values and public life. The retreat from the city is, for him, a retreat from industrialisation, and not really a retreat from the public.

I'm not so sure... sometimes I think we're weaning ourselves off each other.

Look, I need to think about this a lot more, and watch it a few more times. I enjoyed McDonough, but Kunstler shook my mind. Brilliant. Thanks again.

musicalemotion said...

(sorry for the late reply - I have a bad habit of setting things aside and then forgetting about them)

I only recently started thinking about the extent to which cars make us lazy and careless. In my own life, I no longer drive my car unless I need to - in particular, I don't drive it down the street anymore (with occasional exceptions for particular reasons). Instead, I now run into town and back (walking if I'm carrying something back, and walking up the steepest parts of the climb anyway). I'm getting plenty of exercise, I'm losing weight and getting fit, I'm saving money, and I'm even helping the environment (or at least trashing it a little less). Works for me.