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C200: Not Your Grandmother’s Cleveland

2011 March 16
by James Howard Kunstler

< Boston Manufacturing Company mill complex, Waltham, MA; photo: Daderot >

Those of us on the side of civilization—which does not include everybody—understand the value and function of cities. But it’s important to recognize that the character, scale, and disposition of urban life is entering a new phase: contraction. Contrary to the fantasies of many, I believe our cities will have to get smaller, denser, and better organized around their historic centers and waterfronts in order to thrive in an energy-scarce future.

Contrary also to figures like Ed Glaeser at Harvard (author of the new tome “Triumph of the City”), we’re done with skyscrapers and megastructures, and not just for energy reasons, but because they will never be renovated. Our energy scarcity will be matched by a capital scarcity and, very probably, a scarcity of the very high-tech fabricated modular materials we had gotten used to building in. Cities cannot be made out of structures with no hope of adaptive re-use – so we’re going to have to come up with a better plan than the mistaken “green” proposal to stack everybody up in towers.

That better plan consists of traditional urbanism, based on the walkable neighborhood (or district), and buildings scaled appropriately to the resource realities of the years to come.

Personally, I believe the contraction process will be agonizing for our giant metroplex cities, and that the “action” will shift back to our smaller cities and small towns – especially to places that exist in relation to local food production, navigable waterways, and water power.


James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere, and 12 other books, including nine novels.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Cascadian permalink
    March 16, 2011

    Contraction is unlikely. With current trends, cities are growing, just not as fast as the exurbs. Those trends won’t continue, but what’s likely to change them seems more likely to increase the population in cities rather than decrease population.

    First of all, whether through peak oil, technological change, or global warming, people won’t be able to drive ever-longer distances. We are probably close to the limits of sprawl as it is. And if we have a collapse in population from some combination of disasters, long-term flight is not likely to be to the countryside. During crisis, those people that survive do so by cooperating, and you don’t do that huddled in scattered rural or suburban bunkers. You move to where other people are, and you work with them to make it to tomorrow.

    Individual cities might very well decline. It’s hard to imagine cities in the Sun Belt doing well if air conditioning becomes really expensive. And even in a relatively prosperous period we’ve seen the hollowing out of Detroit and other cities. But the general trend will be toward larger cities relative to the population as a whole.

    You’re dead on when you criticize skyscrapers both for their energy intensity and their low adaptability over time. They work well enough as a place to put office space without displacing homes and shops in existing neighborhoods (and are certainly better than the alternative of “office parks.” But you only need so much of that. Mostly what we need is to move people from sprawl to walkable neighborhoods. Both small towns and cities do well in that scenario.

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