Back to the Future
A road map for tomorrow’s cities
by James Howard Kunstler
Published in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine
I LOVE THOSE CITIES-of-the-future illustrations from the old pop-culture bin. In “yesterday’s tomorrow,” they always get things so wonderfully wrong. One of my favorites, from the August 1925 issue of Popular Science Monthly, depicts a heroic cross section of New York’s Park Avenue looking to the south from around 47th Street in the far-off sci-fi future of 1950. “Airport landing fields” are denoted on the roof of a building that has replaced the familiar Grand Central Station tower at the end of the vista. A zeppelin hovers over a row of quaint little “aeroplanes” stashed up there. Park Avenue itself has become a pedestrian mall, not a honking Checker Cab in sight. They’re all down in a three-level underground tunnel system: one level for slow motor traffic, one for fast, and the lowest for trains and subways. “Spiral escalators” connect all the levels to the street above, and turntable-equipped parking garages occupy the basements of the “half a mile high” skyscrapers that line the avenue.
The illustration is a beautifully rendered black-and-white lithograph, and the layout of this future New York is impeccably rational down to the pneumatic “freight tubes” in the lowest subbasement of the buildings. It expresses every wish of its day about optimal city life to absolute perfection, the engineered efficiency breathtaking. Of course, this vision didn’t come to pass. Among other things, it failed to anticipate the effects of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the massive shift to suburbia afterward, which decanted so much wealth (and so many well-off citizens) out of the cities. About the only thing it got right was that the buildings lining Park Avenue would eventually be a lot bigger.
Another favorite of mine in this genre, done in the mid-1950s to portray the far-off year 2000, depicts a city of towers cut through with swooping super-duper highways. So far, so good. It could be Houston or Atlanta today. The amusing part is that the cars depicted all have giant tail fins—because people were cuckoo for tail fins that year. So, naturally, the future would be all about tail fins.
In other words, most visions of the future are really less about the future and more about what’s happening now. Extrapolation tends toward exaggeration. Today, there are two basic cities-of-the-future themes competing in the collective imagination: the dazzling megacity of megastructures (Dubai’s steroid-induced construction) versus something I call Thanatopolis, the city of the dead (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Book of Eli, etc.). All this said, it should be obvious that planning for the city of the future is tied into the urgent issues of our time—climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, the crisis of banking and money, population overshoot, and war—familiar themes to readers of this journal. Add to this the virtual certainty of the nonlinear playing out of events, and you’re soon in the realm of pure conceit. But assuming the human race will carry on (and I do), we’ll have to live somewhere, and in some manner, and lots of plans are being made now anyway.
I depart from a lot of current thinking on the subject. For instance, many people seem to think that there will be more of everything—more people, taller skyscrapers, greater suburbs, bigger airplanes, larger metro regions, or even super-gigantic slums. I don’t go along with this bundle of bull, except for the slums, which I think will be short-lived, contrary to the vision of popular author Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. Of course, trends won’t proceed with the same timing everywhere in the world. But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.
I see our cities getting smaller and denser, with fewer people. Skyscrapers will be obsolete, travel greatly reduced, and the rural edge more distinct. The energy inputs to our economies will decrease a lot, and probably in ways that prove destabilizing. The first manifestations of climate change will be food shortages, one of the reasons I think super slum cities will be short-lived. The growth of urban megaslums in the past one hundred years has been predicated on turning oil into food, and the failure of that equation is aggravating weather-related crop failures around the world. Food shortages will quickly bend the arc of world population growth downward from the poorer margins and inward to the “developed” center—with stark implications for politics and even civil order. The crisis of money is already hampering the operation of cities and will soon critically impede the repair of water systems, paved streets, electric service, and other vital infrastructure. We are heading into a major reset of daily life, a phase of history I call The Long Emergency. Tomorrow will be a lot more like a distant yesteryear in terms of reduced comforts, commerce, and the scale of things.
Bye Bye Beaver
A major theme of mine over the years has been the fiasco of suburbia, where more than half of the U.S. population now lives. It was not produced by a conspiracy, but because it seemed like a good idea at the time, given the confluences of history. Its time is over; the global oil predicament will finish it off, probably sooner rather than later. Laying aside the fine points of its design shortcomings, the logistical drawbacks will leave suburbia harshly devalued. That process is already under way in the aftermath of the housing “bubble.” In the past decade, homebuyers were told to “drive till you qualify”—meaning, far enough into the exurban asteroid belts to where housing was still reasonably affordable. As long-term prospects for motoring dim, these are precisely the houses that are sinking the fastest.
All suburbs have a problematic destiny. Some will do better than others, based on idiosyncrasies of politics and geography. A few will be retrofitted into towns, though a shortage of capital will be a big obstacle when it comes to money for police and other services. Suburbia’s characteristic lack of civic armature suggests an absence of community cohesion. I expect many suburbs will become squats, ruins, and salvage yards. Out of necessity, we will have to forage and reuse all kinds of materials that were energy-intensive to make, from aluminum trusses to concrete blocks.
A lot of young people already have no use or affection for suburbia, and have begun moving into big cities. But when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities. Most of these places are in sad shape after decades of neglect, but they can be repopulated and reactivated.
Farming will require far more human attention than it did during the heyday of industrial agriculture, when roughly 2 percent of the population could produce food for everyone. This agricultural landscape will be organized differently with smaller farms and more people living on or near them. With reduced access to liquid fossil fuels, we’ll run fewer big machines. We may need to revert to draft horses, oxen, and mules as well, which will require care and feeding, with a significant amount of acreage devoted to growing animal feed. Food production will come closer to the center of our economy than it has for generations.