This video shows a lecture by James Howard Kunstler who is an American author, social critic, public speaker, and blogger. He is best known for his books The Geography of Nowhere (1994), a history of American suburbia and urban development, and the more recent The Long Emergency (2005), where he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society as we know it and force Americans to live in smaller-scale, localized, agrarian (or semi-agrarian) communities. He also gives lectures on topics related to suburbia, urban development, and the challenges of what he calls “the global oil predicament” and a resultant change in the “American Way of Life.” He is also a leading supporter of the movement known as “New Urbanism.” During this lecture, Kunstler explains that public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.
Kunstler explains that the public realm in America has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there. The public realm comes mostly in the form of the street in America because we don’t have the 1,000-year-old cathedral plazas and market squares of older cultures. And ability to define space and to create places that are worth caring about all comes from a body of culture that we call the culture of civic design. This is a body of knowledge, method, skill and principle that we threw in the garbage after World War II and decided that we don’t need it anymore; we’re not going to use it. And consequently, we can see the result all around us. The public realm has to inform us not only where we are geographically, but it has to inform us where we are in our culture. Where we’ve come from, what kind of people we are, and it needs to, by doing that, afford us a glimpse to where we’re going order to allow us to dwell in a hopeful present. And if there is one tremendous – if there is one great catastrophe about the places that we’ve built, the human environments we’ve made for ourselves in the last 50 years, it is because it has deprived us of the ability to live in a hopeful present.
The speaker convinces that we have about, 38,000 places that are not worth caring about in the United States today. When we have enough of them, we’re going to have a nation that’s not worth defending. He thinks about young men and women who are over in places like Iraq, spilling their blood in the sand, and asks himself, “What is their last thought of home?” He hopes it’s not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store because that’s not good enough for Americans to be spilling their blood for. He thinks that we need better places in this country.
He describes that public places worth caring about are well defined. They are emphatically an outdoor public rooms. They have something that is terribly important — an active and permeable membrane around the edge. That’s a fancy way of saying that there are shops, bars, bistros, destinations – things go in. Those destinations activate the center of public places and make them places that people want to hang out in. In these places in other cultures, people just go there voluntarily because they like them. He says that we don’t have to have a craft fair here to get people to come here.
Kunstler thinks that one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not going to cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.
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