James Kunstler: The Infinite Suburb is a Joke

The American Conservative:

Jun Cen

Jun Cen

In their visions of the future, the elite graduate schools of urban planning lately see a new-and-improved suburbia, based on self-driving electric cars, “drone deliveries at your doorstep,” and “teardrop-shaped one-way roads” (I think that means cul-de-sacs) as the coming sure thing. It sounds suspiciously like yesterday’s tomorrow, the George Jetson utopia that has been the stock-in-trade of half-baked futurism for decades. It may be obvious that for some time now we have lived in a reality-optional culture and it’s vividly on display in the cavalcade of techno-narcissism that passes for thinking these days in academia.

Exhibit A is the essay that appeared last month in The New York Times Sunday Magazine titled “The Suburb of the Future is Almost Here,” by Alan M. Berger of the MIT urban design faculty and author of the book Infinite Suburbia — on the face of it a perfectly inane notion. The subtitle of his Times Magazine piece went: “Millennials want a different kind of suburban development that is smart, efficient, and sustainable.”

Note the trio of clichés at the end, borrowed from the lexicon of the advertising industry. “Smart” is a meaningless anodyne that replaces the worn out tropes “deluxe,” “super,” “limited edition,” and so on. It’s simply meant to tweak the reader’s status consciousness. Who wants to be dumb?

“Efficient” and “sustainable” are actually at odds. The combo ought to ring an alarm bell for anyone tasked with designing human habitats. Do you know what “efficient” gets you in terms of ecology? Monocultures.

Kunstler at his best. Suburbia is a high-energy development form -- it can only exist with abundant and cheap energy. Suburbs are scaled-up, jazzed-up hunter-gather type communities. The original hunter-gather communities existed in the wilderness where one lived with one's tribe, and they were likely good places to live. However, our big-sized suburbs exist on our cities' outskirts with unknown and sometime friendly neighbors, eating land, wasting resources, and in troubled times often fostering a culture of fear.