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April 24, 2008

Kunstler Impressions

Tacomamama invited me to attend the James Howard Kunstler event this evening with her and I happily accepted. However, unlike some who have bathed in the words of Kunstler recently, I have avoided all books, YouTube videos, blogs and podcasts, preferring to go to the event with virgin ears. This paid off, as he apparently reused a lot of his jokes this evening.

I found Kunstler to be interesting, especially when speaking about architecture. The second part of his presentation was better than the first part. I really wish he had spoken more in specifics about Tacoma since he had spent the day in the city. At times he came off more like a grumpy old man with a, says Tacomamama, "very us-against-them" mentality. He appears very confrontational and not someone very approachable or adaptable to change.

Mr. Kunstler started off his speaking engagement this evening by addressing the energy crisis, or what he calls "The Long Emergency". Focusing on the depletion and hoarding of oil in various world sites, he notes that a day of reckoning is coming where we will no longer have the resources available to fuel the systems we currently have in place (tonight he specifically focused on our transportation systems, especially cars and planes).

When confronted with the argument that technology may provide us with alternate energy sources (or "save" us), Kunstler is very adamant that TECHNOLOGY DOES NOT EQUAL ENERGY. One cannot fill a gas tank with technology; which is a completely illogical argument, but who is going to jump up and argue with the man while he's on stage? At this point he told an anecdote about speaking at Google's headquarters. Harping on their "kindergarten like" atmosphere and making fun of their executives stating that they dressed like "skate rats", he laughed off the fact that these "children" told him, "but we have technology!" I would have liked to ask him if would conceed the fact that technology can lead to innovations that may provide alternate energy sources that we have not discovered yet...

I believe at this point Kunstler began the second half of his presentation, focusing on where and how we live. He had several points:

- The age of suburbia is over. Going forward we will have only urban and rural. Cities will be more compact and rural areas will begin to be used for agriculture again out of necessity.

- We must get out of our cars and choose public transportation. Trains are the most logical choice (but we are not ready for anything more plain old regular rail transport - nothing fancy).

- Architecture should be purposeful, functional, and interesting. Use historical buildings as a guide and you won't need to hide ugly buildings in strip malls, in spaces that have been "greened up" and the like.

- Parks should be away from freeways, busy intersections, etc. People want to get AWAY from these things when they are in parks.

- In order to get people to use outdoor spaces, the space must be clearly defined. Building create walls, businesses create services (edges) and a reason for being.

Many of these are so obvious, you wouldn't think these would be wild and outrageous suggestions, but they are! Looking at his slides of the hideous schools (prison-like), public space (perpetually empty Boston amphetheater bearing a striking resemblance to Tollefson Plaza), and blank walls (I believe it was Boston City Hall with a block's length of blank wall) you start to despair of good design.

I know there has been discussion locally regarding the Proctor Safeway redesign. Currently Tacoma requires that any buildings along Proctor have windows along the street, however Safeway has requested a variance allowing them to have a solid wall along the West side of the building, among other things. I'm not sure what the progress of their request is at this point in time.

There were examples of beautiful and intricate architecture this evening as well. In addition to historical examples Kunstler had shots of windows and rooflines from his hometown, and he talked quite a bit about The Congress for the New Urbanism. The CNU appears to be working to create a new type of infrastrustructure that encompases neighborhoods, wildlife habitat, and farmland. You can check out their work on their website.

I'm sure there are plenty of things I'm forgetting from tonight, but these are the things that stuck this evening.

Posted by Ensie at April 24, 2008 12:30 AM

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Thanks for the recap, ensie. Though national and global policy matters scare tactics aren't the right way to reach people. Seems also that change has to start at home. Transportation is one way to help get there but building community should be a huge factor. For the money (free) Jim Diers was inspiring at the ground level regarding what individuals can do to make better and more sustainable communities. List to audio of him here and here to see what I mean.

Here's something I posted the other day(http://i.feedtacoma.com/Erik/get-your-tickets-james-kunstler/) to help cut through the hype a bit:

Shaking things up to shift perspective and add new ideas to the mix here is already in full swing. Just look around at events like Coffee and Rhetoric and Paul Spark's inspiring Local Life forums of late. Community garden efforts, grassroots pushes for a city-wide streetcar system and even now some folks talking of bringing baseball and the Rainiers into downtown. Hell, even the little things like taking back Frost Park which has morphed into lunch and impromptu art competitions. Not to mention the incredible energy and community that's grown out of blogs and sites like FeedTacoma.

Change is what you're willing to do and how you're willing to put yourself out there. Tacoma is still a small enough burg that simply by doing, change will happen and can easily grow. It always great to hear perspective from "outsiders" like Jim Deers and Kunstler but any of us can pioneer an idea to make great things happen.

And the best part is the appreciation. Whenever a new action for positive change occurs many, especially those in city government are thankful. Leaders throughout town can't do everything for us with their collective limited time and resources but are willing to help guide and provide what they can when available to help spread the load a bit.

I'm happy to see any energy to help push Tacoma forward but let's remember that, no matter who's holding the mic, we don't just listen/absorb but act. Change can start small. Landscape a roundabout. Play some music with your friends in a park. Keep your head up while walking and smile at perfect strangers. Shop local for your next gift. Try a new local restaurant. Together, small deeds will add up into great feats.

Posted by: KevinFreitas at April 24, 2008 05:35 AM

Kevin, I agree that the things you mention can help make a community more livable. But I think you're missing the kind of change that Kunstler is talking about. He is almost exclusively focused on the design of a community--streetscapes, squares, storefronts, parks. How they look and how they work. I think he would say that "building community" in the way you describe would be unnecessary in a well-designed city because everyone would just naturally do it anyway. Our public spaces would call out to us as hubs of the community. The Frost Park event is a perfect example--if Frost Park were actually a good park, away from a major road with something other than an ugly garage at one end, no one would need to "take it back" because we would all be using it regularly anyway.

I think you and Kunstler are talking about very different things.

Posted by: Erik Hanberg at April 24, 2008 09:22 AM

Except that the reality of life and the resources our cities have to deal with is that, largely, we're stuck with what we've got. Change on a planning and design scale is a lengthy process that we should strive to achieve but not lose site of the fact that poor spaces and design can be overcome with some creative thinking and action. They're parallel tracks and I think that if people buy into creating change with what we've currently got to work with, growing that to a larger scale will come, and is coming, next.

Just having bloggers express themselves online over the last couple years has raised awareness and energy about Tacoma like never before. That excitement is already translation to tangible outcomes. Hearing ideas from someone like Kunstler is just one step in that overall process but starting at the planning level alone won't do it. Without the people's buy-in and investment the best laid intentions may still completely miss the mark.

No matter the speaker du jour conversation is a good thing and I appreciate that they can help spurn that along.

Posted by: KevinFreitas at April 24, 2008 10:33 AM

It was very expensive, for me. And I was disappointed at the lack of local content and the recycled nature of pretty much the whole talk. But then again, I have only myself to blame for spending all that money and watching all those Youtube videos, which included just about every slide he showed and accompanying bits.

I am grateful to the experience for reminding me that I could have rearranged my life like that for a free event, with local speakers, learned more from it and not even have had to rely on my friends to buy me dinner afterward. Which I will be doing more of, from now on. (Not mooching dinners, I mean, but attending free events in the evenings.) Other than that: what Kevin said!

Posted by: Jenyum/Tacomamama at April 24, 2008 12:00 PM

Nice write up Ensie.

BHe is almost exclusively focused on the design of a community--streetscapes, squares, storefronts, parks. How they look and how they work. I think he would say that "building community" in the way you describe would be unnecessary in a well-designed city because everyone would just naturally do it anyway.

Yeah, the design of our buildings and streetscape is a critical component to building any sort of civic space and community life.

Tacoma still unfortunately has a ways to go in learning how to build good areas. Tollefson Plaza is only a few years old. Tacoma has made every mistake Kunstler pointed out dozens and dozens of times in recent history.

I am hopeful that he could play some part in improving the future look and use of the city for humans.

Posted by: Erik B. at April 24, 2008 02:50 PM

Ensie, I find your write up highly accurate. I, like Tacomamama, absorbed a lot of Kunstler before the event (including reading one of his books). So, I was disappointed by the high quantity of recycled material. After watching the streaming video of Lars Gemzoe present to the city council, I'm disappointed in myself that I didn't find a way to be there. Gemzoe's presentation was based on years of academic quality study, while Kunstler seemed like he was pulling a lot of opinions out of his behind.

Thank you Kevin, the Eriks, Tacomamama, Ensie, DB,RR, Exit 133, and the rest of the Tacoma blogosphere for stimulating a lot of this conversation. You are inspiring. I do believe that together we can make Tacoma an even better place to live.

Posted by: Heather H. at April 24, 2008 03:38 PM

Kevin, Jen, and Ensie,
i challenge us to take what we heard/learned/re heard from Kuntsler, and start our own conversation and platform (Blog,park, whatever)about the changes WE are willing to make and what it could mean to us locally. Some of the things he speaks of seem rather unreal, and some of them are frighteningly spot on. What can we do here, and what are we already doing? We have had 3 conversations now (Go Local or Die)about measures that others have taken for change. It's time for us to get out the whiteboard (chalk maybe?)and set some goals. Are you in? It's time for action!

Posted by: Daymaker at April 26, 2008 02:40 PM

Hi Daymaker,

I'm totally in, and I can vouche for Jen and Kevin that they are in, too. All three of us are involved in our community and will continue to be, but that's not what this particular post was about. It's about the fact that the Kunstler event was a relative disappointment in terms of local content. I tried to give an accurate accounting of what his presentation was like, and I think I did. Almost all of it could be found online for free, and just about none of it was specific to Tacoma, which is what I think most attendees were looking for. What's the point of paying for Mr. Kunstler to come if he is only going to recycle old speeches and offer little local content?

If you want to talk change, for my money,I was much more impressed by Jim Diers (who I believe spoke for free?) who had actual solutions and ideas instead of just complaints to offer. He did a great job of showing of how everyday, grassroots efforts can make small changes that cause big changes in a community. He was incredibly inspiring to listen to. If he was given the type of forum Kunstler had been we might be seeing more of the type of change you are talking about.

Posted by: ensie at April 26, 2008 11:17 PM

i have to agree with you on the absense of satisfaction, but for me that's more due to my annoyance of "Pep" rallies and disappointment in most of the public yearning for "solutions" and answers from outside of ourselves. I feel like this is an "inside job", much like self esteem. We have very passionate people here, and we are very capable of doing and being the very change he so abusively spouted. The "Local Living Lounge" is an opportunity for us to congregate on a regular basis to incent change and action. I'd love to share my Thursdays with you zealous nuts that are committed to Tacoma being all that it is. Anything that you feel relevant to the "Localization" conversation is welcome there. We need to take his and Dier's presentations and make them Tacoma specific. Let's start being PROUD of what we are already accomplishing and get some energy behind it to move it further. the Market and "Local Living Lounge" starts May 15th.

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