by Emily Corcione
ALBANY: “Being green isn’t good enough anymore.” That was the message of Mr. James Howard Kunstler, who spoke at the Save the Pine Bush dinner on February 18, 2004. His speech focused on how we can best honor the public realm in America. The public realm, which functions as “the physical manifestation of the common good and the actual physical container to our civic life,” primarily takes the form of the street in America. Mr. Kunstler believes that if we can define space in a way that honors the public realm in a meaningful way, we will automatically create places of quality and character.
Unfortunately, said Mr. Kunstler, we are not currently doing this in our country. We are degrading the public realm, which in turn is degrading public life of our communities. We are creating places that are damaging to us—buildings that are so blank and ambiguous that they seem to say that the public has no meaning.
Most places in America look exactly the same. Although most people may not see big differences between one Parisian boulevard and the next, no one comes back from a vacation in Paris complaining of the monotony of their surroundings. The reason for this, according to Mr. Kunstler, is “what you are seeing in Paris is uniformity of excellence; what you see in the US is uniformity of miserable places . . . characterized by one idea, places not worth caring about.”
To illustrate this point, he showed a picture of a school in Las Vegas that looked like it could be a minimum security prison. “What message is this sending to the students?” Mr. Kunstler asked. “This is a brutal place of humiliation and boredom, and you must have done something terrible to go here?” Mr. Kunstler stressed that we have to raise our standards. Such visual monstrosities are not good enough for us.
Although we deserve better, confusing and frustrating buildings have become commonplace in American architecture. Mr. Kunstler described how architects are now trained to break convention and boundaries by building the most original, cutting-edge buildings as they can imagine. This aversion to normal convention sometimes confuses us, for example by not putting doors in the places in which we’d normally expect them to be, and forcing us to hunt around for an entrance. Mr. Kunstler also gave another example of how an acquaintance of his at MIT who was not allowed to put posters on the glass wall of his office that faced the main atrium, because it would destroy the architect’s abstract pattern. Thus, we are prevented even from making these buildings seem more human to us.
The solution we see to poorly constructed buildings and blocks is usually to stick in a park or other green space. If that doesn’t work, we often tend to give up on it, and those who have money move out of the city into suburbia. We have invested so much of our national wealth into this particular way of doing things, that we can no longer admit that it’s a failure. The antidote to the misery of urban life is not a little house in a natural landscape, or a little park in the middle of the city, but it doesn’t occur to us that a building can solve the problem because we’ve lost faith that we can build great buildings anymore.
The time is fast approaching when this mindset will no longer be acceptable. According to Mr. Kunstler, we are nearing the end of the petroleum age, and many problems, such transportation costs, will arise. As a result, we are going to have to live closer to the center of things, and not sprawl out into one suburban development after another. Since the best solution is to re-inhabit our cities and towns, we are going to need to relearn what the basic composition of the urban block is all about. We need to create cities where all the organs of civic life are employed in an ordered, unified way; the residential, commercial, and cultural organs all need to be close to each other so people can conduct their daily lives without depending on cars. Thus, said Mr. Kunstler, we cannot solve every urban problem by sticking a green space there: “Being green isn’t good enough anymore. You’ve got to be brown and gray, all the colors of brick and stone and mason, too.”
Many places in Europe embrace this idea. Some of the best public places in the world, such as the piazzas in Italy, barely have any green at all. Everything man-made there is magnificent, so people don’t have the American yearning for greenery and nature. Mr. Kunstler showed one park in Paris that, with the exception of a few trees, had no green in it whatsoever. The implicit order of a little geometry, some pea gravel, some decently designed benches, and the few strategically placed trees were all that was needed to make the park a peaceful place to relax and escape bustling city life.
To further the point that green space is not a panacea for urban problems, Mr. Kunstler compared a twelve-lane boulevard in Las Vegas with one in Paris. In Las Vegas, they had “stacking lanes,” which they would unload incrementally. This meant that pedestrians would have to wait over half an hour to cross, and then desperately sprint across all of the lanes before the light would change.
In Paris, however, one design for the twelve-laner is to have six parking lanes and six travel lanes, with local travel on each side of a median to allow local delivery trucks to slow down while other traffic can continue quickly. The medians also provide a rest area for pedestrians, so they don’t have to cross all twelve lanes at once. More importantly, some of the most desirable and expensive real estate in the world is situated above these boulevards. The mixed-use aspect of the area is very appealing: there are various shops, restaurants and services throughout the area. Thus, the Parisian boulevard is an example of a public space that is worth caring about, and illustrates, as Mr. Kunstler pointed out, “how successful and how compatible such a mix of activities can be when there are governing unities of design to hold it all together.”
To close out his presentation on a hopeful note, Mr. Kunstler showed several places in America that have “gotten it right,” such as a building project in Memphis. Even though all the houses were identical, their quality and design were so excellent that it did not matter. Moreover, since they were duplexes, they were functionally rich. People of mixed incomes could dwell in the same neighborhood and share the beautiful common space. Mr. Kunstler showed another building project in Florida. The storefronts are arcaded to allow people to continue shopping during the frequent cloud bursts, instead of running to their cars and hurrying home. This continues to activate the street even when it was raining. People are allowed to live above the shops, creating mixed-use areas like those seen in the Parisian boulevard. This fosters relationships that are hard to achieve elsewhere in America, partly due to zoning laws, which Mr. Kunstler feels should be reexamined.
To summarize Mr. Kunstler’s message, although it is crucial to protect our environments and preserve the green spaces we have left, we cannot rely on greenery to rectify our urban maladies. Moreover, we should not simply give up on the city to construct more suburban landscapes. There are simple solutions to city problems if we know where to look. Simply building a well-planned road could turn a frightening and frustrating intersection into a desirable piece of real estate. If we construct buildings that make sense to people and give them an idea of their identity and history, we will give people reasons to want to go into the city, instead of just going downtown for a single purpose and leaving as soon as possible.
A well-defined public realm tells us about our history and culture, and allows us to see who we are, where we come from, and affords us a hopeful look to the future. If, however, we’re surrounded by poorly defined space and buildings that tell us nothing about our past or our future, it is hard to feel that our culture is worth anything. We need to construct city blocks and squares in a way that will make people care about them, and in turn care about their culture. Because, as Mr. Kunstler said, “when we have enough places in America that aren’t worth caring about, we will have a nation that’s not worth defending.”