By: C Harris-Lockwood
Photos By Tom Loughlin
On Tuesday, May 1, noted author James Howard Kunstler addressed a packed house of concerned citizens in the main dining room of the Fort Schuyler Club in downtown Utica. This was a lecture regarding the importance of maintaining the dignity of humanity in design of urban architecture and the ultimate unsustainability of reliance upon oil as the current main source of global of energy.
Kunstler, an authority in urban design issues, stressed the importance of walkability and the consciousness of previous urban designers. Theirs’s was a consideration of the public realm as not just a corridor for cars. The lecture was sponsored by the aligned interests of #NoHospitalDowntown and Better Utica Downtown.
With a series of slides and a colorful monologue, Kunstler displayed a visual and descriptive presentation of what has gone wrong in our American march towards to future in our cities and suburbs. Though he may have an aversion to the planting of trees in urban landscape design, his was a disturbing comparison between pre-twentieth and twenty-first urban design.
Citing a loss of confidence in modern architecture and urbanism, Kunstler compared the development of structures such as the proposed hospital plan for downtown to dropping a UFO onto a city street.
Stressing that the presence and condition of our outdoor public space, speaks to us as our culture and impacts us emotionally as well as physically enabling our access and egress. Kunstler explained that the permeability of buildings on our streets should be easily accessible with shops and merchants on ground floors with dwellings and meeting places above. He referred to this as a permeable and active edge.
He likened structures such as the proposed MVHS development as dropping a UFO onto a neighborhood. He explained that these “Mega-structures eventually go from assets to liabilities; that this sort of crypto-urbanism has no future. There is no artistry, the human scale is absent, it sends a bad message and promotes a zone of death.”
Kunstler’s delve into “Peak Oil” was a reminder of times prior to horizontal natural gas drilling when vertical oil drilling was the norm and dwindling in supply. Today’s reliance upon ‘fracking oil’ has given a short reprieve and an illusion that all is well in the petroleum industry.
The amount of energy to create one barrel of horizontal fracked oil is enormous compared to the efficiency and ease of mining in the traditional manner. Kunstler spoke on the allocation of resources of enormous wealth in a desperate attempt to keep it all running. This reliance upon new oil as opposed to new oil has the world in a “pay for what we do now by borrowing debt in the future” in a flawed prayer of “Please, God, can we keep driving to Walmart forever?”
In a world economy where he cites, ‘managing surplus wealth from 4% to 40% promotes economic fraud, swindling and pervasive dishonesty.’ The question of dangling a ‘gift’ of $300 million for a hospital which costs $580 million and the loss of taxable properties to sustain income for payment presents on a serious problem. As he said, “representing the money side fraudulently.”
Kunstler went on to say that “One hundred years of cheap energy and 75 years of relative peace” has left the world with the illusion that things will carry on. He predicts that soon to come “unexpected conditions will surprise those in power’ and the economic contraction will require a reduction in scale and a need to replace growth economy with an active economy.
He claims that this pervasive dishonesty in leadership will succumb as a result of less capital and a reduction in scale. Kunstler likened the suburban buildouts on the countryside to the ‘last twitchings of a brain-dead industry.’
He returned to promoting walkable communities as the middle class can barely afford to buy new cars anymore and that this unsustainability will fail on a financial basis.
He also stressed building norms, habits and practices should promote a geometry reflective of humanity which is understandable, tranquil and comforting.
Kunstler predicted the return to a dependence upon trains, canals and other waterways rather than truck fleets moving goods and materials across the nation and more and better mass transit for human transport.
He opened questions from the floor and responded to many aspects of conflict in the quest for maintaining Utica’s historic pathways and corridors. Kunstler was challenged on his condemnation of the medical profession making the distinction between the ethics of individual doctors as opposed to the medical system as a whole.
While Kunstler did not attack the Downtown Hospital project per se, attendees from the
“Build it at St Luke’s” group seemed to draw encouragement from the speaker’s conclusions on the financial risks, architectural and macro ergonomics damage any such megaproject could do to the future of the city.