Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chaos in the City. Architecture, Modernism and Peak Oil Production – James Kunstler in Interview

A part of the problem with urban development in the US is the sanctity of private property. In The City in Mind Kunstler writes that US property law was linked to individualism: you could fine a landlord for not having running water but you could not enter his property and install it. Nor could his tenants sue if he did not comply with regulations (35). I asked him about the differences in planning law between America and Europe: “European nations have very different land tenure traditions and laws than those in America. They tend to produce a kind of ownership that has many more obligations and requirements built-in. To some extent, land ownership in Europe is understood as just a more elaborate form of long-term tenancy. In a kingdom, particularly, there is a tacit understanding that the ultimate owner of all land is the crown, whatever the current disposition of things may be. The authorities have much more power to tell European land-owners what they can and can't do with their land”.

I asked how to go about designing a city in which it is easy to orient yourself, an issue which comes up in The City in Mind. “There is charm in something like the medieval city. Most large Euro cities today retain at least gothic 'quarters'. Orientation is achieved by means other than a legible, rational street-and-block plan. For instance, by landmarks. Church towers are one method for establishing where you are in a city. You can see them from a distance. So are the interruptions in urban fabric known as squares and plazas of various sizes. Another method is the 'terminating vista', which is a way of siting important buildings at the end of streets. One effect of this is to break up a longer journey across the city into smaller increments; you establish a visible destination (a courthouse or a palace), reach it, and then move toward the next visible destination (a square, a cathedral) and so you make your way around the city by steps. It's not as simple as the numbered, orthogonal block system of Manhattan, but it works fairly well and it has a lot more charm. For the visitor, it even has the charm of a puzzle that is not so difficult to solve”.

Concern has been voiced recently in Europe at the impact of suburban retail giants, readily accessible only by car, on the fabric of local communities and cities. In Dublin there has been some controversy over mooted plans to change the law in order to allow a multinational furniture chain to build a massive shop in the northern suburbs [Editor's note: The law has subsequently been changed, removing the previous 6000m2 cap on retail outlet premises]. Kunstler, though, is not too worried about the influence of these mega-chains: “I believe that the format of giant chain stores is a temporary phenomenon, a product of certain anomalous economic conditions that will not continue in the decades to come. Defence against these corporate 'swarm organisms' has been difficult to impossible. But they are about to wither and disappear. Fighting against the Ikeas and Wal-Marts of the world, at this point, is a waste of time. They'll be gone surprisingly soon. The national chain store model of trade will not survive the permanent global energy predicament and the conditions emanating out of it, in particular the end of cheap long-distance transport and 12,000 mile-long manufacturing supply chains. Their narrow profit margins will be destroyed in a non-cheap-energy future. Life is going to become extremely local in the years ahead. And the scale of all activities will have to be reduced”.

We turn to oil and the Hubbert peak. M. King Hubbert predicted that global oil production would peak in the late 1990s, after which the cost of extracting oil would steadily become higher and higher as we reached for less easily extractible oil at a time when the growing world economy would require ever more oil. In 1956 Hubbert correctly predicted the year that oil production would peak in the US; his forecast for global peak oil production has been knocked off course by only a few years because of the 1970s oil crisis.

“The consensus among those who study the oil peak phenomenon, chiefly Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes and their colleagues, many of them former oil company chief geologists, is that 2005 will be the actual year of peak. After that, suburban development will be tragic, if any of it happens at all. Our cities will have to shrink. The food supply will be in big trouble. The implication of that is that the hinterlands of our towns and cities will have to be devoted to much more local food production. Good luck”.

I countered with OECD predictions that oil will still only cost 35 dollars a barrel in 2030 Kunstler's reply was brusque: “The OECD is fucked in the head”. He does not hold out much hope for alternative energy sources or modes of transport just yet either. “No combination of alternative fuels or systems currently known will allow us to run American society as it has been, or even a substantial fraction of it. The 'hydrogen economy' is a dangerous fantasy. If we want to keep the lights on after 2020, we'll probably have to build more nuke plants. That's not a personal desire necessarily on my part. Just stating a fact”.

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