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The Car in the Landscape: A Love Story

As life and business return to the small and local scale, the age of the automobile will recede to myth.

Vintage illustration of a couple in a whitewalled, fin-back yellow convertible on a bright sunny day; screenprint, 1957. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

For more than a century, the automobile has represented the essence of American life like nothing else, like no other artifact or idea. The freedom of the open road is a powerful age-old metaphor for life lived to the fullest, and in its heyday the automobile amped that up to the last limits of wish fulfillment. For the sake of argument, let’s peg that heyday as the 1950s and ’60s.  We were cruising for burgers, having fun, fun, fun, escaping the tedium and responsibility of square adulthood with Jack Kerouac, and venturing into the romantic-ecstatic mythic zone out on Thunder Road.

The automobile also provoked a prodigious re-ordering of the landscape itself, the terrain of this beautiful continent only recently opened to European settlers. We took that to the limit, too, with the creation of the world’s first drive-in utopia, our beloved suburbia, and by the 1970s we had so mutilated that landscape that every fruited plain was covered with a hideous and depressing crust of tract housing and its accessories: strip malls, fast food shacks, muffler shops, et cetera, ad nauseum. And even that wasn’t enough. Come the new millennium and we found ever more new, ingenious formats for a car-centric living arrangement in all its totalizing horror.

I like to refer to all that as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world, because it’s what we invested most of our post-war wealth in. It’s coming to an end now for reasons I have stated in previous installments of this series, but which I’ll tick off just to remind you: peak oil (yes, still out there), a more general resource overshoot (ores, fertilizers, fish in the sea, etc.), a grotesque debt quandary, mutually reinforcing feedback loops of economic systems failure now in motion, and attendant political disorder. You can also throw in climate change, whether you’re expecting fire or ice, since it will ramify all the aforesaid. Hence, circumstances will be taking us in the opposite direction now: smaller, closer, finer.

I want to discuss here exactly how the car disgraced our beautiful continent, so you’ll enter this new disposition of things knowing exactly what went wrong and why we will benefit from living differently without cars. Cars destroyed all the traditional connections between things except for the car and road, and there was a lot more to man’s relationship with the landscape than just the need to go rapidly from point A to point B. Our relations with the world work in layers and hierarchies, and the car destroyed those relationships in our physical surroundings.

I got a clear glimpse of that some years ago in a visit to Mackinac Island, Michigan. This summer resort, located at the keyhole strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, banned the automobile from the get-go (except now for emergency vehicles). Everybody walks or bikes or goes about in horse-drawn vehicles. Even the colossal Grand Hotel takes deliveries by horse-and-wagon. What you see there now are relations between the streets and the buildings that were never dishonored by car traffic, never disrupted, maimed, or mutilated. The transition from the public realm to the private realm plays out seamlessly from street to sidewalk to gate to door yard to porch to front door—and it is as much a journey for the eye of a pedestrian on the street as it is for anyone actually going in and out.

Everywhere else in America, the presence of cars is so ubiquitously despotic and violent that buildings literally dissociate from the streets, turn their backs to it, answer the dialog between street-and-building disdainfully with rude gestures of detail. Hardly anyone in suburbia uses their house’s front door, which is often reduced to a cartoon applique.

The busier the street and the greater the speed of cars, the more humans and the buildings they inhabit are repelled by it. In many U.S. cities, the buildings express this explicitly by presenting completely blank walls to the street, which says it all (“We don’t care.”) Or else, they solve the “problem” by placing a giant apron of parking along the street. Another response is to plant meaningless landscaping fantasias between the building and the street—“nature” being the default last resort where people have lost faith that buildings themselves can express anything.

Beyond the cities and suburbs, in the rural landscape the automobile has made it possible to decant, the contents and people of our small towns to sprawl all over the back roads, impoverishing the towns and disrupting the fields and forests of the countryside. The denizens of these scattered houses will be marooned in the sunset of mass motoring, especially as the nature of work transitions from business conducted on computers to on-the-ground activities based on the essentials of growing food and making whatever finished goods we can at much smaller scale closer to home.

Schopenhauer observed that historic paradigm shifts are first greeted with ridicule, then violently opposed, and at last accepted as self-evident. That’s exactly how it is going with the phase-change now underway. In the 2010s, peak oil was laughed at. The violent politics of 2020 locate us in the middle of this process as the old fossil fuel economy collapses. When that finally resolves, say in the 2030s sometime, it will be self-evident that we have to live in walkable villages, towns, and city quarters—that is, exactly the kinds of places we naturally built before the automobile came on the scene. The “happy motoring” system that seemed like so much everyday normality the past four or five generations was actually an extravagant but transient luxury. We may never know anything like it again. The stupendous, intoxicating freedom of movement it conferred and liberation from all the old confinements of geography may take on ever more elaborate qualities of myth. As all the crappy suburban buildings and far-flung McHouses get disassembled for much-needed salvaged materials, or go to ruin, we’ll forget the devastation that the decades of remorseless motoring produced. The landscape will eventually heal. Our towns will redevelop emergently as integral economic units, compact, dense with bustle, intelligently designed, assembled with care, and, very likely, beautiful.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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