Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where's Great National Purpose When You Need Some?

In 1996, Atlantic Monthly excerpted a portion of James Howard Kunstler's great architectural opus, Home From Nowhere, and I instantly became a disciple.

Kunstler -- nowadays considered a first-rate crank and gadfly to conventional planning departments across America -- espoused a new home and city design paradigm called New Urbanism. Although not the originator of this new way of thinking about our built environments, he was certainly its most vociferous and articulate proponent. After reading the Atlantic Monthly article, then reading Home From Nowhere, and then his earlier city planning opus, The Geography of Nowhere, I began to research other sources on New Urbanism. What I found were very small and vocal groups of cranks and ne'er-do-wells including architects, developers, and newly baptized city planners who had to struggle like hell just to get the tiniest communities built displaying New Urbanist ideas. I never joined their official organizations and never attended any of their meetings, but I believed nevertheless.

Since then, I've just been working as a lone wolf architect, believing what I believe but not trying to convince anyone else about those beliefs. Until I started this blog. And while I've many times pondered the construction of great manifestos here to vanquish mine enemies and hold up the light of reason and hope to the downtrodden, even then, I've kept many of those most sacred beliefs quiet and hidden in the background neurons of my timid mind.

However, the official website for New Urbanism has now published a list of 10 solutions, some quite shocking, intended to soften the blows of Peak Oil and Global Warming for the next generation. Without interruption, I present it here:

By Andy Kunz, from the New Urbanism website

10 SOLUTIONS to the peak oil and global warming twin crises that are feasible, healthy, and sustainable:

1. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new road construction and expansions.
2. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new airport construction and expansions, as well as an end to all aviation subsidies.

3. The immediate construction of a nationwide new train network across America connecting every city, town, and neighborhood with an efficient, state-of-the-art electric train network comparable to what is currently operating all across Europe and Japan.

4. An immediate tripling of minimum vehicle miles per gallon standards for all vehicles produced in America - accomplished by a quick and complete conversion of all factories to the building of only hybrid, solar, and fully electric vehicles.

5. An immediate moratorium on the construction of any new coal fired or nuclear power generating plants.

6. The immediate construction of massive new solar and wind power generating capacity all across America, including small windmills that can be incorporated inconspicuously into the roofs of buildings.

7. The immediate installation of full roof solar panels on every building in America.

8. An immediate moratorium on the building of any additional sprawl.

9. A major focus of federal, state, and local governments on the densification and revitalization of all existing cities and towns across America, with pedestrians and bicycles given top priority over automobiles. Included would be millions of affordable housing units and high quality neighborhood schools located so all children can walk or bike to them.

10. The immediate installation of major organic farms at the edge of every city and town across America.

The article finishes with references and this appropriate quote from architect Daniel Burnham:

“Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency."

I, along with most architects, have used the first part of that quote. I even quoted, "Make no small plans," on this blog. But I never read the rest of it before. It's appropriate for this blog and I may in time stick it up on the masthead. But back to the big plans of

I don't think this list is as feasible as they state. But what it lacks in realpolitic, it makes up for with boldness and clarity of intent.

I don't think all of these solutions would be healthy. But only in the sense that the harshest medicines can be destructive to the patient, bringing him or her to the very brink of death before the healing can begin.

And I don't even think the emphasis on solar power would be as sustainable as hoped since the current technology required for the manufacture of solar panels requires tremendous inputs of hydrocarbons while the return on energy investment is relatively low. Wind provides much better returns on investment. And nuclear is better still, despite the insurmountable political and environmental hurdles that must be overcome to build a new nuclear power plant. The list's emphasis on electrical power generation as part of the solution, while shutting down new coal and nuclear power plants -- the technologies that are the most significant generators of mass electricity available to us today -- can't fall entirely on the shoulders of wind and solar. Just not realistic.

Still, I haven't read a list like this, one that would actually do substantial good if approached with the seriousness of Great National Purpose, since first reading Kunstler's Home From Nowhere exactly ten years ago. Of course, none of this will happen in the way that putting a man on the moon in the 60's or attacking the Axis powers in the 40's was done with similar Great National Purpose.

So I fear the fabric of society will gradually fray and erode and disintegrate as the world's infrastructure frays and erodes and disintegrates. Still, a boy can dream. And remember, when you look back at these good old days and wonder what might have been, that you heard some of those solutions here first.

Note to Self: In the future, resist the urge to blog during late night hours when cynicism is rampant and uncontrollable.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you saying that installation of roof solar panels would require such a high initial carbon energy investment that over the life of the panels they would not pay for themselves, even x times over?

honest question.

7:58 AM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

No, not saying that exactly -- although as I understand it, traditional solar panels don't return "x times over." The problem is that such a huge new emphasis on solar panel manufacture would require such a high initial carbon energy investment at exactly the time in our history when carbon energy demand is beginning to exceed supply, forcing prices skyward in response. Such a nationwide effort to increase solar panel manufacture would further stress that balance. However, with oil and natural gas production capacities plateauing and soon going into decline, I can think of no better long-term investment of what carbon energy resources we have left than kick-starting sustainable energy sources -- assuming the energy return exceeds investment.

9:36 AM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Courtesy of, I came across a quote from a big oil executive, "Considering the many productive uses of petroleum, burning it for fuel is like burning a Picasso for heat."

That pretty much sums up the bind we're now in with increasingly limited supplies of oil and natural gas. We need them for transportation fuel and heating of course. But they're also totally indispensible in the production of plastics, fertilizers, solar panels, wind turbines, and just about everything else in the known man-made universe. Priorities, priorities...

Finally, some Picassos would make perfectly fine kindling. Just sayin'.

12:31 PM, April 28, 2006  

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