Relocalization and Peak Oil

Julian Darley: The message is getting out. More and more people have noticed there’s a problem with petroleum and gas. And now, peak oil is spoken - even within the corridors of power. Even though sometimes it’s to deny it. But, not always, by any means. So, I think it very interesting to hear about your experiences with the kinds of people, who actually do build some of the infrastructure that we need to change.

ยป Source: Global Public Media

James Howard Kunstler: I’ve been associated with the New Urbanists, for about 15 years. And, they’re mostly the designers and developers I consult with. And, they’ve done a tremendous amount of very good work around the country. Most of the best work that they do, is this stuff that they’re least known for. They’re best known for the Green Field New Towns, that they’ve done. And, I think that there’s a good philosophical grounds for feeling a little dubious about creating Green Field real estate developments, of any kind. Even if they’re good. There’s been just a lot of work in filling the towns and the cities.

The town I live in, is an interesting case in point. A small, classic Main Street town of about 28,000 people. That had a lot of holes in it’s center, going into the late 1990’s. And, one guy in particular - was a friend of mine. And, he had been redeveloper - or rehabber of historic buildings. Mostly three-story buildings. Small apartment type of buildings. But, he decided he wanted to build something new. That this might be a good idea. And, he got a hold of a piece of property that used to be an old railroad right-of-way. Which is completely decommissioned now. And, they rerouted the railroad to the outside - the periphery of town. Anyway - he proposed to put up a new building. About five stories, with sixteen apartments in it. And, the City Council laughed at him. And, all of the other developers in town, laughed at him. He was a great spectacle. They said; oh, you’ll never make a dime. You’ll ruin yourself. And, there’s no market for this, what so ever. This is 1999. So, he said; well, I’m going to build it anyway. And, he did. And, they had to permit it. Because, it fell within the parameters of what was allowable.

So, he built it. He sold out all the condos, before he finished the foundation. And, that really got the attention of the local development community. And, since then; we’ve gotten - I think, six or seven - new downtown urban buildings, that are five to six stories high. Most of them are residential. And, a couple of them are office. And, one of them is mixed. And, they’ve been very, very successful. But, I’ve seen some interesting trends, that are a little troubling.

One is; that after my friend, Bob, demonstrated it could be done. The increment of the size of the - the ambition of the projects, got bigger and bigger. So, they went from 16 units, to like 27 units. To then 54 units. And, I think that they - the last one that came in for approvals, was over 100. And, it was actually defeated. Not by the approval process; but, by the financing. The financing fell apart. I think that it would have actually been a disaster. Because, they would have brought all this condominium stuff onto the market, all at once.

Probably at a very bad time. So, this stuff is happening. Even in small town America. And, people realize that there’s a tremendous resource in underused, centrally located, downtown property; especially, in small towns. And, they’re beginning to do something about it. But, I do think that this is a - you know, part of this is happening, because we’re in kind of the final blowout of cheap energy. And, there’s still a lot of energy there to accomplish these projects. I think the future is going to be quite different. And, we’ll be very lucky, if we can redevelop a small, individual building lot. Yet alone, build a brand new 5 story building.

Now, there’s one thing that does trouble me. The way that they’re heating these buildings. Most of these apartments have got individual, natural gas furnaces in the utility closet in each apartment. And, I’m convinced that that’s going to be a disaster. We’re going to get into trouble with high priced, natural gas. People are not going to afford to be able to heat their apartments. And, they’re going to have to retrofit these buildings. In some cases, they’ll be left to Homeowner’s Associations in the condo building. And, that will be a pretty big capital expense for these guys.

And, I saw one project in Rochester, New York, that interested me. The guy who put in the geo-thermal heating system; basically, ran a lot of pipes. Basically, six feet under the parking lot; using that form of geo-thermal. Which is not volcanic, to access temperatures in the 52 degree range. So, that you - once it starts to get really cold out; you’re starting heating something that’s already 52 degrees. And, you don’t have struggle to heat something from 10 below.

Julian Darley: Do you think the realization, that something’s going wrong with our petroleum, and our natural gas supply? But, in particularly for this question, our petroleum. Is our allowing some architects, and developers and designers, opportunity to be more bold. As, they might once have been, 10 or 15 years ago; in calling for reduced use - in fact, no use of the car at all. And, they may have been pushed away from that, by circumstances in the last few years. And, they may have now be able to find reason to go back in saying; actually, we want to try and design places - I mean infrastructure, that have no cars involved in them. Do you think there’s a sense of that yet?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, actually I don’t think much. Even among the new urbanists. And, it’s kind of disappointing. And, you’re beginning to see the first twinges of recognition, that something is up. But, it’s like; something’s up, we’re not sure what it is. What I did notice, about two weeks ago, at the Annual New Urbanist meeting in Providence. And, we were both there. Was, that the people who are putting together the lead standards; I think they’re beginning to change their view. And, I think that they had to make a major readjustment in their thinking about how they were going to create standards for agricultural accessibility.

Or, how we’re going to tie in the standards and norms of excellence in our building practices, with the need for local agriculture. And, have some connection between them. So, that they’re not divorced from each other. They hadn’t thought about that at all. From them, it was all about insulation and a certain kind of glass. And, pretty much; do we pollute or do we not pollute. It was all about really creating pollution or not creating pollution. That was really all that they were concerned with.

Julian Darley: Where do you see other places developing? Are there some municipalities? Some people that you’re talking to? Are starting to grasp this - is there a shift in the urban rule of relationship? In understanding that if you are saying goodbye to 3,000 miles, 5,000 miles food; then it has to start coming much more locally. And, that has huge implications for agriculture and where it’s positioned. And, the whole land use thing starts to change. Do you have any sense - are you having any conversations with people who are in control of that kind of thing? They’re starting to realize this?

James Howard Kunstler: No. I think frankly, that the people in charge. And, of course, I’m an anti-paranoiac, type of conspiracy guy. I’m speaking and thinking, simply of municipal officials. You know, they don’t have a clue about this. And, even the ones who are well intentioned in their own towns. Who really want to redevelop the centers of their towns. Have no notion that we’re going to need to re-establish the distinction between what’s the country and what’s the city. And, what’s the urban. And, what’s the rural. That whole distinction, was obliterated by the fiasco of suburbia. And, it’s not going to be put back easily.

Even the people who are relatively conscious about energy; have grown up in a world that has completely lost the sense that there are certain activities that are appropriate for rural places. And, other things that go on in urban places. And, that they’re quite different.

Julian Darley: In some places, including San Francisco; they’re passing peak oil resolutions. And, for instances, in Sonoma County in California. Recently, some elected officials from municipalities, did get together and receive some words about the situation. And, asked others about doing something about the situation. Have you come across anybody doing these kinds of things, in your travel?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, I certainly heard about the resolutions. To me, it’s sort of like that gag that we went through, earlier today. Where the normal idea now in America is, that suburbia is okay; because, people choose it. And, that shows the quality of the intellectual debate we’re having. But, the truth is - it’s coming off the menu. And, we have to notify the waiters in the kitchen, that we’re not going to be serving it anymore. And, this is a way of sort of notifying them by resolution; oh, by the way, bear in mind that we simply can’t do this anymore. It’s not on the menu. 86 on the suburbs.

Julian Darley: Do you think this is an opportunity for some of the towns in America, which have undergone severe economic attrition. Do you think that they can come back a bit? Are they in sensible places, where they should be able to come back? How do you see that?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, there are tremendous economic opportunities in rebuilding these local networks of economic interdependency. Where people not only have a work role, and a vocational role. But, they have a social role, which is part of that. And, that is exactly what we succeeded in destroying, with the national scale economies. And, national chain retail. And, we’re going to have to do it. Whether we like it or not. And, probably whether you can make a fortune doing it. People are going to have to do it. If we’re gonna continue to have human societies. We’re going to have to trade things, make things. Sell things, to some degree.

We’re not going to neo-lythic, again. I don’t think it’s going to be the same scale, as what we have now. But, we’re going to have to do it. And, they’re tremendous opportunities to occupy these niches of commerce. And, the vocational positions that are going to have to be reoccupied. And, to some extent, reinvented.

Julian Darley: What kind of reaction do you get, when you point out to people in the city planning world. City planners and others. That, the one of the main implications of peak oil and natural gas decline; is that growth and smart growth sustainability. And, all these other phrases that still mean growth anyway. What kind of reactions do people have about that?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, mostly they cough into their sleeves. ‘Cause, they don’t believe it. These are amongst the most clueless murmur dons of bureaucracy, that we have. And, they’re a part of this officialdom that we have. This dogma, that has huge reserves of inertia holding it up. And, they just don’t want to think about changing their methods. Or, their principles. Or, their practices. And, the popular view has been; that they think they would move along through attrition. And, that these guys would retire out of the officialdom. And, they would be replaced by younger people, who know better.

To some extent, this is happening. And, they are being replaced by kids who grew up in the crap that the older generation approved of. Permanent and designed. But, my guess is that they get sucked into the whole, procedural morass themselves. And then, they themselves become creatures of the night. Of suburban planning. And, children of darkness. And, my guess is that they will be confronted with this shear inability of the system to continue this kind of behavior. And then, they’ll have to change. Whether they like it or not.

Julian Darley: Do you think there’s an upper limit at the size the city can be? I mean, we can all guess at Mexico City and Las Vegas. Being, in their different ways; absurdly wrong scaled. But, do you think there’s a sensible upper limit, to a city that we might call a post carbon, post petroleum city?

James Howard Kunstler: I don’t think that there’s any question that there’s an upper limit. And, we’re virtually there. In most of the places that you mentioned. And, I don’t think the skyscraper has a bright future. We certainly don’t know whether it does or not. It’s simply a creation of the oil age. And, we don’t know whether we can run them. I think we’ve probably reached the limit with that. And, we’re not gonna build that many more of them. Because, we are now really on the brink of encountering problems that will make it hard to do that. Also, just the shear geographical extent and scale of the city; I think, has reached it’s terminal stage.

Julian Darley: Do you think a million is a reasonable upper limit? Or, 10 million? Or, a 100,000? What do you - ?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, it’s rather hard to attach a strict number to it. Because, it depends on how you deploy them in landscape and cityscape. You can have a city of a million, in skyscrapers that will fail logistically; for one reason or another. And, you can have a city of a million, in buildings no more than seven stories high; that will do better. So, alot of it has to do with building typology. You know - there’s a lot of talk, for example in Vancouver, about density. There’s a feeling; that, oh, we’ve got a great victory. Because, we’ve convinced these people to make things dense. Well, density is one thing. And, it’s probably a desirable end. But also, if you don’t design the streets to work properly. And, to be rewarding to be in. And, to be - to function for commerce.

You know - you’ve got a lot of density in downtown Vancouver. But, they’re all high rises, surrounded by landscaping fantages. With no retail. And, you go through the streets of these buildings. And, you think; these are really boring streets. It’s not just very good thinking. And, you know - it’s interesting. I was just talking to the lady on the Planning Commission, who herself is a landscaping architect. And, she thought these things were fine. That there’s nothing wrong with them.

And, to me; it’s a complete misunderstanding of what - where the green belongs in the city. The green belongs in the park. The green belongs in the square. The green belongs in the deployment of the street trees, in a formal way. But, it doesn’t belong just slathered around the base of the building. You know - like it was guacamole. You need other activities on the base of the the building. And so, they’ve got all this - what I’m trying - in a very windy way to get at, is; they’ve got all this density in the center of Vancouver. But, it very badly designed to function at the fine grain, street level. And, that defeats alot of the purpose of the density.

Julian Darley: There’s a considerable difference between density, as conceptualized in various places in North America. And density, as has been practiced in Europe.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah. Let me make the additional comment; that you know you’ve got this situation in Vancouver, where probably a lot of those people in those high rises. They’re not going to walk downstairs to a grocer. They’re going to go to their garage and get their car. And, drive three miles out to a suburban Shop N’ Save. And, come all the way back, with their groceries. In Manhattan, for example; it works differently. There are small grocery stores, deployed all over every block and a half. You get on the phone. You call the grocer, and they send your stuff up - to the apartment.

Julian Darley: Do you have a city in Europe, which you think exemplifies the kind of density, that could be in some way - migrated, imported, slightly changed and dove tailed into North America?

James Howard Kunstler: Oh, I think most of the European cities are good models of urbanism. It’s really only the exceptional ones. And, most of those, are the ones that were bombed in World War Two. That were subject to the deprivations of the Utopian Modernists. Those are the ones that have trouble. You know - Rotterdam. The center of Berlin. There are parts of the center of Berlin, that are ridiculous. The traditional European cities, are for the most part; are going to remain successful.

When the people in Denver, are sitting around. You know - 27 miles away from anything - are sitting around, wondering what they’re going to do. The people in Dusseldorf, are going to be going about their business. The people in Barcelona, will be getting their groceries, by walking a block and half. And, going to their jobs, by getting on transit. Or walking ten blocks or whatever. And, I think it’s going to be good for them. And, not so good for us. It’s too bad, that we couldn’t access these models. And, emulate their success. But, …

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