James Howard Kunstler Talks About Tacoma and Other Unpleasant Places

After hearing social critic James Howard Kunstler speak in Tacoma, Jordan Barber discusses ideologies of New Urbanism, which hopes to save our country from the scourge of suburbia.

A couple weeks ago, James Howard Kunstler gave a talk here in Tacoma, Washington. Kunstler is a social critic best known for his semi-apocalyptic views on the decline of oil production and how it will completely reshape our lives. He’s faced some criticism because he doesn’t have any professional or academic credentials in his areas of expertise, but Kunstler also has a propensity for dramatic scare stories: he predicted Y2K would be a catastrophic disaster and that the Dow would collapse to calamitous lows at the end of 2005. The disaster he’s best known for documenting, however, is America’s suburbs and “places that are worth caring about.”

I wanted to see if Kunstler thought that there were any places worth caring about in Tacoma. Tacoma isn’t the prettiest city in anyone’s book. It’s been in Seattle’s shadow as an ugly, industrial port town for some time, although it’s been getting nicer in recent years. The downtown isn’t bad, but the sprawl around it is hideous and run-down. There is a lot of low-income housing around, which tends to attract buildings and construction that aren’t particularly attractive. So I assumed Kunstler would just rip Tacoma a new one.

He did, but he also made some smart observations about America’s cities in general. Kunstler is a proponent of New Urbanism, a school of design that advocates a return to traditional, dense areas of development. Tall, mixed-use buildings are the main idea here: commercial on the first floor with offices or residences on the upper levels. Placing these buildings close together fosters a sense of community and allows people to get around without using a car. The problem with suburbs, after all, is that they’re vast swathes of low density residential communities and nothing else. No one walks on the sidewalks because there are no stores close by—only houses. Suburbs cannot function by themselves; they are useless without cars.

Suburbs also attract hideous big box stores and strip malls. These convenient, square, brick hell holes are the cause of that weird “this store in Seattle looks exactly like the one in Kentucky” feeling that we all get when walking into a Target. Or, in the words of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential urban planners in America, “City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to Noplace.”[1]

Kunstler talked about these ideas as well, and made sure to repeat to the audience that disgusting suburbs and big box buildings “aren’t good enough.” That struck me, because it seemed so painfully obvious. Of course strip malls are ugly. Doesn’t everyone think so? They aren’t good enough. They aren’t worth caring about. So why do we keep building them?

In Seattle, Pike Place Market is one of the big tourist draws to the region. Going there is usually a disaster because traffic and parking is painful. My favorite thing there is the long line of small international food stores that line the market street. As I walk down the crowded street, I like to stop and stare at the people around holding all sorts of different food. Inevitably, I cave and go buy something to eat. This is a really silly narrative, but the point is that a place like Pike Place Market doesn’t have to exist at that exact location. No one likes the mind-boggling traffic and bank-breaking parking fees. It seems strange that there isn’t anything similar around. How are places like Pike Place Market started? How do you make places worth caring about?

Kunstler made a big deal out of several features a space should have: a building’s look, its mixed use, and accessibility. Though it sounded like an odd key term for middle-management, one of the main ideas was termed “space activation”. A space is activated when there is foot traffic and people entering/exiting. This seems obvious, but apparently is quite difficult to accomplish. To make an example of this point, Kunstler talked about one of the local Tacoma parks. It’s a nice area, with some weird modern art sculpture and benches, but not many people go to it. The reason is because there’s nothing else there. The park is enclosed by a building wall and heavily used streets. It’s not ugly, but it’s awfully inconvenient.

There’s a small chance I’ll go to a park on any given day (I’m lazy), but there’s a greater chance I’ll go to that park if there’s a creperie or coffeehouse right next to it. There’s an even greater chance I’ll stop by if my apartment or office is two stories above that coffeehouse. Activating spaces is about creating traffic and a localized sense of community. If there is an abundance of places in a small area, then people are more likely to travel there because there’s a greater reason to go. Like the rows of international food stores in Pike Place Market, if you don’t want Indian food, there’s a Russian place next door.

In a suburb, there’s no sense of community because there’s nothing else to go to. You take your car ten minutes to the teriyaki joint, but there’s nothing in-between. As opposed to walking on the sidewalk and communicating with others, in a suburb you get in your car and go. Robert Putnam, a political scientist, has tracked this notable decline of social connection in America’s cities in his book Bowling Alone. One of the causes, he notes, has been the car and the isolation that results from a long trip. “The car and commute…are demonstrably bad for community life.”[2]

I don’t know about anyone else, but my experience living in a suburb was boring and sometimes lonely. I always thought it strange that my parents’ generation was so keen to move away from the city and into the suburbs. I think they’ve been tricked by the lure of a large yard and a big house. But as people my own age get older, I think there will be a shift back to the cities. The thought of using public transportation and walking is appealing in the same way that driving was to my parents. In the future I plan to live in the middle of a city in a cramped apartment. Urban renewal aside, at the very least I’ll get all the crepes I want.

1. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Modern Library ed. New York: Random House, 1993. Pg. 440.

2. Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone, 213.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.