Saturday, April 24

Kunstler is not really the face of smart growth

Kunstler and O'Toole meet for the first time. Source: Brown PTP
I just watched a debate held last week at Brown University between James Howard Kunstler and Randal O'Toole entitled "Building America: who should control urban growth?" Halfway through, I began to wonder whether the debate organizers had taken two separate presentations and spliced them together with Adobe Premiere. They were not only not actually disagreeing (which is helpful in a debate), but they weren't even starting with the same questions.

Kunstler, with his characteristically vivid language ("Phoenix is going to dry up and blow away. We're done with that"), spells out the inevitable collapse of the entire American energy and financial system, while O'Toole compares charts of data for federal subsidies of various modes of transportation. The closest Kunstler gets to addressing O'Toole's (rather flamboyant) charts was simply to point out how easy it is to lie with statistics. That, and the fact that it's all coming to a crashing end. Case closed, I guess.

I have no interest in throwing Kunstler under the bus, but I want to stress that he has to be considered in the right context. He's a writer and provocateur. He's not at all a policy wonk nor a strategist. He's not even particularly interested in solutions. I like the way Eric Jacobsen characterized him a few years ago, as prophet, straight out of the Old Testament, proclaiming "repent for the kingdom of god is near." I would no more expect a detailed economic forecast from Kunstler than I would from the ancient itinerant Ezekial in sackcloth and ashes. A different mode of communication altogether.

Highway proponents like Randal O'Toole recognize Kunstler's eccentricities and are happy to characterize him as the face of smart growth. The fact that Kunstler is intensely critical of government planning and dismissive of larger cities doesn't seem to matter. In a recent blog post, O'Toole told his critics to "get their noses out of Kunstler’s biased diatribes," as if the writer himself were issuing marching orders to the hordes of planners and activists from his command post up in Saratoga Springs.

Suburban proponents have a lot to gain from casting Kunstler in this mastermind role, which helps explain why John Stossel keeps trying to get him to appear on his Fox Business show. A message of impending doom, whether true or not, is not particularly winsome to most Americans. Keep in mind that Kunstler's primary argument these days is not so much that compact, walkable neighborhoods are more desirable than sprawl, but that sprawl will be unavailable to us whether we prefer it or not. Telling an American they cannot have something makes us want it more, which is not necessarily a bad trait if it's coupled with hard work and ingenuity. This deep-rooted optimism does not work in Kunstler's favor.

Secondly, his writings are a veritable gold mine of quotable nuggets for anyone seeking to cast the central smart growth argument as aesthetic in nature, something opponents do all the time. Jarrett, from Human Transit, explains this tactic well,
"The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic arguments always do.  This move -- ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones -- is sadly common these days."
Find a quote calling all suburbanites clowns, or something equally unfair and derisive, and then earnestly defend these Americans' right to have their own housing preferences. Nevermind public health, social equity, environmental constraints, fiscal feasibility or any other reasoned arguments. The other side is only right-brained impressions and personal preferences, as O'Toole recently summarized the debate.

Finally, Kunstler's bluster, which is part of the show, doesn't always play well when it comes to actual policy debates. Calling his opponent a "rogue in the services of evil enterprises," as he did in a podcast prior to the debate, may get a laugh out of many of us but it also blurs the lines between entertainment and serious problem-solving. This comment also dives head first into the genetic fallacy. Even if O'Toole receives funding from highway interests, his arguments really need to be evaluated on their own merits. I know I'd be cool if someone wanted to pay me to say something I already believed.

For a truly fruitful critique of O'Toole, I would direct you to two places. Austin Bramwell, writing in the American Conservative, fires some posts back and forth with O'Toole. Bramwell's basic point is that the number of regulations and subsidies that mandate sprawl and motoring far outweigh those that encourage compact development and walking. He questions O'Toole's highly selective market approach. Or check out Matthew Yglesias's similar take. Although a progressive, he's fully willing to put on the libertarian shoes for the sake of debate. These are the kinds of responses that O'Toole's followers, at least those who are at liberty to have their own opinions, are likely to find more persuasive.

I still think Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere are classic polemics. Kunstler can turn a phrase wonderfully and boil down the essence of an observation into a pithy and humorous line. He's just as witty in his weekly podcast with Duncan Crary. He's a showman, who once wrote that "an audience doesn't hunger for the truth so much as authenticity. They know the truth can be slippery."

In the spirit of niceness, I'd like to end with a great passage from Home from Nowhere,
"I feel an obligation to paint the landscape of my time, so I often paint the highways with cars on them and even roadside monstrosities like McDonald's and Kmart. I especially like the contrast between the artificial light of the electric signs and the natural twilight in the background. The result on canvas is oddly beautiful, but of course what's left out is the roaring traffic and smell of exhaust fumes. A few years ago, I was painting a McDonald's with my easel set in the bark mulch bed of a Burger King parking lot across the highway. I was well underway when the manager bustled out and barked, "that ain't allowed here!" I dared him to call the police. I would have loved nothing better than to be arrested for painting."
But this is not my bible. I don't think it was intended to be.


Kevin Leeson said...

Great post! Well done.

emory said...

"This move -- ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones -- is sadly common these days."Jarrett Walker

Ample examples of this trend in discussions by the Charlottesville Planning Commission

Matthew said...

Perhaps a better place to start would be from the viewpoint of Christopher Alexander, which while utopian, never make any kind of purely aesthetic debate.

Peter said...

In other news, Daniel is not really the face of smart blogging.

I think one could sum up this post fairly succinctly:


I would suggest this is a petty way to gain notoriety and 'respectability'. But, if blogging for a 'think tank' that does not tell you what to write (I swear!) is what you want to do, then this is probably exactly what you need to do to get there. In political circles, it's necessary to call Chomsky an idiot -- in smart growth circles, some guy named Daniel has decided that Kunstler is the guy that needs to be cast out.

To each his own, but I'd rather die with my dignity intact.

That said, there are other options -- for instance, you can always have an opinion on things yourself. Why not? You only live once. Enter the game. Jump in. Get involved. Don't sit on the sidelines and be a concern troll -- actually try to make a difference. Don't be bitter because Kunstler is marvelously talented and you are not -- try to get smarter, more well-written, more clear-thinking, etc. Challenge some assumptions and watch the blogosphere jump all over you -- no matter how much sense you make. You want to become more important in an honorable fashion? There's a really easy way -- stop saying what everyone else is saying, and instead say something true.

I have no interest in throwing Kunstler under the bus,

one would have to presume you were capable of throwing someone under the bus -- but Kunstler? You? I mean, I could sit at my keyboard and type a whine up about how Lebron's game is wack, but what would be the point? Instead, I just continuing practicing my J.

He's not even particularly interested in solutions.

You say you've read Kunstler, so this statement casts serious doubt upon your reading comprehension skills.

As for what O'Toole says -- why are you so afraid of him?

Suburban proponents have a lot to gain from casting Kunstler in this mastermind role

Yes - i couldn't agree more! Or something.

Telling an American they cannot have something makes us want it more

This is just a completely fabricated and nonsensical generalization.

This deep-rooted optimism does not work in Kunstler's favor.

what kind of psycho-babble is this?

as for aesthetics, they're hugely important, and they've been largely ignored, which is why most of America looks like a dump. there is loads of research backing up the importance of aesthetics to communities.

besides any research, though, beautiful things/people/places are awesome -- they bring tremendous joy to people. Who cares if some crackpots want to cast it as reason #1 or reason #100 -- that's their problem -- let the state-capitalists talk all they want.

Finally, Kunstler's bluster, which is part of the show, doesn't always play well when it comes to actual policy debates.

this kind of diplomacy always strikes me as cowardly and counterproductive. why would anyone believe what a planner has to say when said planner is too afraid to engage in a little ideological combat? showing conviction is meaningful. granted, it takes a strong personality to engage propagandists, mostly because you're going to be attacked from ankle-biters you might have expected to support you, but not everybody has to be as popular as Kunstler.

spare us the 'spirit of niceness' baloney. you know what you wrote -- own it.

Daniel Nairn said...


Um ... when I was writing this I kinda thought this was my genuine opinion, but I suppose you have greater insight into the deeper motivations of my heart than I do. By the way, how exactly do you obtain "notoriety and respectability" simultaneously? That would be the perfect blog post.

Look, my post was about context, not about value. There are multiple ways to communicate a message, and some are more effective than others in certain circumstances. If you think pulling out the "nation of clowns" language will serve you well as, say, a policy analyst evaluating the public health impacts of food access, then, by all means, fire away. You only live once.

But, more to your point, I don't think we are actually a "nation of clowns." Kunstler is unfair in many of his generalizations. Statements like these are just not true. He does them for show (he will say as much), but I am saying that not every audience is the same.

O'Toole may be wrong, but he is articulate and at least makes the attempt to use actual data to support his assertions. Responding with simple categorizations like "you lie" or "you're one of them" leaves the distinct impression that you simply don't have the reasons to support your rebuttal. If I were a young Brown student with little exposure to this topic, I would have come away with a positive impression of O'Toole's side. That's who I am. I could tell by the questions that I'm not the only one. And that really frustrated me. Why couldn't they have asked Todd Litman?

I also don't see the world as you do, as some sort of cosmic struggle between the authentic non-conformists and the mindless "state-capitalist" evil-doers. It's a lot more complicated than that. And how we frame this will determine our chosen responses. You would like to defeat "them" (a group that I'm apparently now a member of, or at least auditioning for) in ideological combat. I would like to listen to every idea, and cobble together a coherent response that helps make the world a little better than it is today.

bill said...

I think Peter, that we need both firebrands like Kunstler, and then cautious reasoners responding like Daniel is doing in his, yes, modest, but excellent blog. If we are to simultaneously create a debate, and then incrementally implement them, it's good to have a man like Kunstler to raise a ruckus, but then have people seriously attempt to create consensus in the ensuing uproar. It's evident that Daniel is taking Kunstler and his ideas very seriously, and was not diminishing his role as a provocateur, but instead pointing out that it's good to have more than one face of a movement--especially one that is maturing, and especially at this period of time when there are media networks and movements mobilizing against the very notions of planning. A man like O'Toole and his ideas might be just tools for prevailing interests, but they are still very dangerous in their protectiveness of the status quo. Daniel is recognizing that they need to be addressed directly in a way that combats their ideas, not shouting past them or louder--do that and lose the debate not on the merits or principles, but in pragmatic reality. We have way too much of that type of non-dialogue in the body politick already, and I, for one, enjoyed Daniel's straightforward description of some parts of the so-called 'smart growth' political landscape.

Patrick M said...


I don't disagree with you that there should be a non-aesthetic case put forth for smart growth, but casting Kunstler as the "unserious" guy in the debate with O'Toole as the articulate muster-er of statistics who is taking the enterprise seriously is frankly, absurd.

Randal O'Toole has a long history of twisting and manipulating data beyond the pale. His libertarian cries against planning in general ring hollow- he is always against municipalities "forcing" higher densities on residents. He is strangely silent, on the other hand, when municipalities force lower densities on property owners who want to develop their land in order to cater to that property owner's neighbors' desires to force their low density lifestyle on others.

In terms of O'Toole's tortured analytical techniques, Todd Littman has administered the definitive take down in his report "Evaluating Smart Growth Critics."

But even more damning is that when push comes to shove, the only people who publish O'Toole's stuff are partisan think tanks. You never see O'Toole at the Transportation Research Board (where Littman is an annual fixture) because O'Toole's methods would get crushed as sophistry by other transportation and land use research professionals.

As to Kunstler being the face of smart growth, you're the first person who I've heard suggest that. Andres Duany is more often given that tag, or maybe Reid Ewing.

Kunstler's bombast doesn't play well with everyone, nor is it designed to do so. But he was right to basically argue past O'Toole's presentation as a stock course in how to lie with statistics- the researchers who peer review the top planning and transportation research in the country would agree with Kunstler and kick O'Toole's "scholarship" to the curb.

Daniel Nairn said...


Alon Levy made a similar critique, and here's how I responded to him:

I do agree with you about O'Toole. Nothing exacerbates me more than hearing him splice some statistic in a disingenuous way. My wife can attest that I was literally shouting at the screen when he stated flatly that our country subsidizes automobile travel negligibly. That, and when he chides smart growth for mandating multifamily housing in places, ignoring entirely the fact that almost all specific land use regulations in this country prohibit it.

I guess my problem is that many people don't know the real story. He at least looks like he has numbers behind him. He's positive. Hell, he even put a picture of himself on a bike to show how personally unbiased he supposedly is in the whole matter. When I expected Kunstler to take him to task on this, all he did was launch some vague personal attacks and dismiss all of economics as bogus.

And I don't think O'Toole will ever be convinced, nor can he ever be really without a career change. The people who need to be convinced are the ones watching the debate.

A chart to chart battle of stats may end up in tedious confusion, but at least it would a draw. I'm also not so cynical to believe that real data cannot be convincing, if it's presented correctly. Brown students are pretty smart people. Add in Kunstler's brilliant one-liners as a side dish, and he could have presented a really convincing case.

Anonymous said...

I think your post is great for me anyway. When I first heard Kunstler I was struck by a feeling I've had all my life that no one has expressed. I appreciate your criticism of him - I too am a critic (without a blog I'll admit). However, he strikes a cord with those of us who look at what is around us and vomit. I watched the Brown debate and feel like you that the debate was nonexistent. The problem being that Kunstler's point is that we have produced junk, and O'toole saying that capitalism made me do it. Well, O'Toole indicted the free market as a producer of ugly cities...