Kunstler's advice to Obama: Work with CNU to stimulate overlooked downtowns

Fresh off his appearance in the New Yorker as a guide to the future — he'd argue near future — dislocations of the post-peak-oil landscape, Jim Kunstler returned to Montgomery, Alabama and to Seaside and the other seminal new urbanist beach towns of the Florida Panhandle.

In these towns, he saw how the real estate boom years somewhat distorted the original Seaside vision of a bohemian village, bringing increasingly large (and opulent in the case of Rosemary Beach) homes on small urban lots. He recognizes the role Seaside's beauty played in drawing "every thoracic surgeon and corporate lawyer between Nashville and New Orleans." And more importantly, he knows the full scope of new urbanist work intimately — the Hope VI public housing design guidelines created in conjunction with Clinton-era HUD leadership; the downtown plans for Providence and Milwaukee and Denver; the transit-oriented development in Pasadena, Rockville, Maryland and other cities; the zoning code reform and street designs that make walkable neighborhoods possible again across the country. And he says this work is the blueprint for making our oil-guzzling country a place that can function as well as possible in a future with less plentiful and cheap fuel.

Kunstler covers this terrain in the most recent posting on his website:

The New Urbanists had not set out to build monuments to Yuppie-Boomer consumerism, but a peculiar destiny shoved them into that role for a while – even while they toiled elsewhere around the nation to reform town planning laws and generally provide an antidote to the fatal cultural cancer of sprawl, that is, of a settlement pattern guaranteed to comprehensively bankrupt our society. Anyway, the collapse of the housing bubble has affected the New Urbanists' business, too, and this may turn out to be a very good thing because they can put aside the distractions of building very grand places to sop up ill-gotten wealth and focus on the issues that Mr. Obama's people should have been paying attention to all along, namely, how are we going to reform the way we live in this country and what will be the physical manifestation of how we live in the decades to come.

The New Urbanists have preached for years that conventional suburbia would fail America in the long run, and that we'd have to prepare for this failure by restoring traditional modes of occupying the landscape. So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can't recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future – and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.

But there are scores of places like Montgomery, Alabama, and thousands of traditional main street small towns that are sitting out there waiting to be re-activated. We need to do this much more than we need to build new freeways to the beach. Suburbia is not going to be abandoned overnight (even if it fails logistically and economically !) but we have got to arrive at a consensus about rehabilitating our forsaken small cities and small towns. The New Urbanists have gathered, organized, and codified all the principle and methodology needed to carry out this campaign. This should be their moment. Mr. Obama and his team should get with the program.

Definitely worth a read. And he doesn't note that despite the moribund streets he found in Montgomery, new urbanists have been doing award-winning work there to bring life back to the streets and empty lots (below).


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