VIDEO: James Howard Kunstler Trashes America’s Vast Suburbs in TED Talk

While this TED Talk was first delivered by James Howard Kunstler in 2004, virtually all of it still holds true today more than a decade later.

In the speech Kunstler, an outspoken critic of suburban sprawl, discussed the idea that designers and officials have seemed to largely forget how to properly design public spaces, which he contends should be thought about more carefully as spaces created and framed by buildings.

Instead, he says, that America’s suburban sprawl has been the “greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” He goes on to say that suburbia is largely not worth caring about by anyone, and is the reason why those areas of the United States continue to fail to deliver on any of the promises they originally touted following the end of World War II.

The nearly 20-minute talk includes a variety of colorful comparisons and striking examples of how poorly designed America’s suburbs are. The ongoing argument throughout the course of the speech, is that these places are not places worth fighting for; and that our armed men and women fighting for American freedoms deserve better.

“We have about, you know, 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. And I want you to think about that when you think about those young men and women who are over in places like Iraq, spilling their blood in the sand, and ask yourself, “What is their last thought of home?” I hope 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. We need better places in this country.”

As planners throughout North America continue to spend exhaustive amounts of time reviewing said curb cuts, total signage area and other rather trivial details, Kunstler argues that the bigger picture of building proud communities is being missed.

While the New York native does not discuss Cincinnati in his talk, he very well could have. While most regions have their fair share of poorly designed suburbs, Cincinnati has become infamous for having some of the worst in the United States. Suburbs that are so bad, in fact, that even The Enquirer editorial board recently published an opinion urging the move away from such badly designed communities.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Horseshoe Casino Fails to Deliver on Urban Design

The completed Rock Gaming/Caesars joint venture boasts a list of features one would expect of a casino: 354,000 square feet, $400 million price tag, restaurants, bars, a 2,500-space parking garage, and space for business meetings and conventions. None of these features should come as a shock to anyone that’s ever been in a casino.

The touted difference between Horseshoes Cincinnati and Cleveland and casinos elsewhere, is that these have been deemed “truly urban” casinos. Well, if locating in a downtown is all that’s needed to make something urban, then mission accomplished. But since a downtown is a living collection of buildings and spaces, whether something is truly urban has more to do with how it contributes or detracts from its location. And since casinos are not known to be particularly friendly urban creatures, the most recent example being CityCenter, it’s worth looking at some of the concerns expressed to the unnamed Las Vegas starchitect Dan Gilbert imposed.

Cincinnati Casino
The only actual limestone you will find on the site is the wall coping around the lawn- note the whiteness of the caps compared to the synthetic stucco below.

The first thing I think of when I look at the new casino from any angle is tan. Why in the world is it so tan? Color wasn’t something that was a key talking point for the casino, though the Urban Design Review Board has now made that a priority at The Banks, but the tan-ness of the building really dominates all other exterior features. This domination lies with the use of synthetic stucco to emulate limestone. The issue here is not with modern building technology, but that it was misused in both color and implementation.

The implementation failure lies in the lack of any ornament within the stucco. One of the main reasons for using limestone is that it is one of the best stones for showing carved detailed, as can be seen just blocks away at 30 E. Central Parkway. Why try to emulate a limestone building if the only way you do that is by using fake alternate panels and stopping there?

These two issues with the exterior of the building can be summed up in one way: the Messer Pendleton Bid Package required $5,033,623 for exterior metal framing/stucco, and $6,967,980 for interior wall framing and drywall and $2,268,821 for painting and wall coverings. The casino allocated an amount for the interior walls almost twice that of the exterior walls.

30 E. Central Parkway

The second oddity that stands out is the number of offsets, particularly on Reading Road. Offsets are a common feature of large single-story buildings, like Wal-Mart and Kroger, to break up the mass of these behemoths. But what’s the goal here? To confuse the pedestrian or neighbor across Reading into thinking that these are multiple windowless buildings? Admit you’re a grand building like Music Hall or Union Terminal. Walking west down Reading is like passing by massive stone boulders. There’s no beauty or nuance to the walls save for two large brick panel insets and foundation plantings.

“With the strong support of this very active, urban-focused community, our team has been working for more than a year to ensure that our project does not prosper alone but also benefits the surrounding neighborhoods and region. The outward facing design and pedestrian accessibility will rejuvenate this part of town, while putting thousands of people into good-paying jobs.”- Dan Gilbert- Chairman, Rock Gaming.

“Outward facing design” is a catchphrase that was repeated throughout the design process. What does that mean? To this project it means having one main entrance and restaurants with windows and a patio, quite the accomplishment for typically fortress-like buildings. But to say the design of the project is outward facing because of the openness of only 360 feet of the entire building’s facade and at only one of the intersections surround the site is like saying a restaurant near the entrance of a mall is outward facing because it’s on the exterior of the building.

Reading Road Quarry
Richard Rosenthal was right about his concern over a “gully-like” feeling down Reading. In fact, it’s a quarry.

Urban design was really were there was the most input from local groups on how the casino will most likely affect the everyday life in the public realm around the casino.

Terminated vistas – views that focus on a deliberately chosen object or scene – is a historical design concept used to draw people towards a building and create the appearance that destinations are closer than they appear, encouraging pedestrians to walk.

In the case of the casino, the site’s prow-shaped western end at the corner of Central Parkway, Reading and Eggleston creates the opportunity to terminate the view looking east down Central at the casino entrance and the developer has taken that opportunity. Again, as with the offsets, there is a lack of grandness to the view as the casino is dwarfed by the height of the buildings leading to it down Central, rendering it almost insignificant.

Central Parkway Vista

The view down Pendleton towards the casino would sad if it wasn’t so tan. No pedestrian connectivity, no windows, not even roof treatment. Nothing.

While the focus of activity for the casino will be at its entrance and new lawn for the county jail, the opportunity for Pendleton lies in what happens north of and down Reading.

From the site’s layout, you can see that building coverage isn’t great on either side of Reading Road for certain spans. And oddly enough, the casino chose to build near the street for the span west of Pendleton where there are no buildings on the north side of Reading, and then chose to back away from the street for its loading docks for the span east of Pendleton where there are buildings on the north side of Reading. And since Rock Gaming owns the stretch on the south side of Reading, it’s extremely doubtful that organic infill development ever occurs in this area.

To end where the casino does, urban casinos are not uses that fail for any reason other than over taxation. When the casino opens and rightfully provides a local opportunity to keep the poor man’s tax from leaving for Indiana or Las Vegas, let’s be careful not to confuse its popularity with quality.

This guest editorial was authored by Eric Douglas, a native of Grand Rapids, MI who currently lives in Covington’s Roebling Point neighborhood. Eric is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism and earned a Bachelors of Science from Michigan State University. Since that time he has worked for Planning, Community Development and Public Works departments in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Detroit. If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy you can do so by submitting your guest editorial to urbancincy@gmail.com.