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Critic of Sprawl Makes Suburbs His Target

Culture: James Kunstler and his fellow 'New Urbanists' head a movement that decries new tracts and aims to reduce car dependence.


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — James Kunstler leaves his beat-up 1992 black Ford pickup truck parked on a sidewalk for days at a time and rides his even older bicycle a few minutes to work.

It's a simple solution to surging gas prices. Harder to swallow is his contention that the rest of us will soon be forced to follow suit--that the cheap oil era will end for good, and spending many waking hours behind the wheel will be unaffordable.

With an actor's zeal and Andy Rooneylike sarcasm, Kunstler spent the last several years lecturing throughout the country as part of a movement that discourages new suburbs, promotes preservation of historic architecture and aims to cut down on car dependence.

Kunstler and fellow "New Urbanists" are not just looking to get around gas prices, which rose to an average $1.70 a gallon for regular unleaded in May. They envision a land where people know their neighbors, live among aesthetically pleasing homes and workplaces and either walk or ride buses to shop, work and mingle.

Their ideas to fight sprawl--the practice of building farther and farther away from a community's core--are gaining ground or, in this case, saving ground, in communities from Atlanta to Providence, R.I.

"He's lit the fire under so many people," said Shelley Poticha, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. His book, "Geography of Nowhere," she added, "was almost a call to arms."

Kunstler believes that loan practices, farming trends, even World War II culminated in look-alike neighborhoods of cul-de-sacs and large lawns. He considers the result an ecological, social and spiritual wreck.

From 1992 to 1997, close to 16 million acres of undeveloped land were turned into offices and homes, American Farmland Trust said. Voters are reacting. In 1998 more than $7.5 billion was approved for so-called smart growth, according to the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

Kunstler's criticisms go beyond conservation. He suggests that even the Columbine massacre was related to American design. A "lack of place" in new buildings, he argues, yields no relation to past or future, and teenagers feel this most acutely.

"Suburbia creates enormous amounts of anxiety and depression, and there's not enough Prozac in all the world to cure it," he said over lunch in a restaurant a short walk from his office.

The words have the urgency of a college drama major, which Kunstler is. He put aside acting for writing and lecturing. His novels include a marriage farce and a rock-and-roll drama. But it was his series on suburbia for the New York Times Sunday magazine that led to a career as a freelance social critic, which takes up most of his time.

At no time was Kunstler formally trained in architecture or civic planning, which is why he figures people pay attention.

"There's a lot of anger at architects and, understandably, at what they've delivered to us: a world of strip malls and muffler shops," he said.

The American Institute of Architects says it intends to be a leader in making "livable communities" a priority for the country. It focused on the topic at its annual convention in May, with Congress for New Urbanism founders discussing land use and social issues.

Architects are often hired to duplicate existing buildings, need to bid on projects to survive and have little opportunity to dictate New Urbanist principles, said Roger Lewis, professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture. Kunstler's work helps shift expectations among civic leaders, Lewis said.

Kunstler lives what he believes as much as possible. His home is not a modern cookie-cutter model but an 1820s cottage with a delicate white picket fence two minutes away from Saratoga Springs' Main Street, where he works. His home once served as a saddlery building.

His office is also a whiff of the past, located above a pricey dress shop in this city known as a wealthy getaway for horse racing fans. Up a narrow staircase, on the second floor, his office door has a translucent textured window recalling a 1950s private detective's office, but was in fact a former dental practice. It is decorated with Kunstler's oil paintings of his third (and current) wife.

When Kunstler walks down Main Street with a reporter, he stops to chat with a friend, an encounter made possible, he points out, by wide, well-traveled sidewalks.

Kunstler has addressed angst over design in the halls of Harvard and Yale universities and small cities like his own hometown of Saratoga Springs. His wit borders on, and sometimes crosses over to, cruel.

Separate snapshots from Biloxi, Miss., appear twice in a row in the "eyesore of the month" section of Kunstler's Web site. He describes a blocky pink beachfront building: "In a perfect world its function would be a poodle euthanasia center." Biloxi's new courthouse,Kunstler wrote, "invokes arbitrary bureaucratic despotism."

Biloxi's city leadership took no offense.

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