Northampton Redoubt: “Mr. Kunstler, is all infill good?”

Daryl LaFleur published the following interview with James Howard Kunstler on Northampton Redoubt this weekend. Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, written “Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.” We are reprinting a large excerpt from LaFleur’s interview with permission.

Last August Northampton Redoubt interviewed James Howard Kunstler,
noted author, social critic and a leading proponent of New Urbanism. He
spoke on infill development, specifically as it pertains to the
thirty-one unit Kohl condominium proposal off of North Street in
Northampton, which has since been amended to twenty-five units. Mr.
Kunstler did not have the benefit of viewing the Kohl proposal prior to
the interview, but he weighed in nonetheless.

NR: Mr. Kunstler, is all infill good?

There are many ways of looking at it okay, one way is this: that we are
now entering an era in which we are going to reactivate our existing
towns because the suburban project is over. We will be reactivating and
infilling our towns. What we’re seeing now is that in the early stages
of this we’re not very good at it. Over the last fifty years of putting
most of our investment in suburbia our skills have been lost. We’re
getting them back, but we have a ways to go. To some extent the New
Urbanists have been very helpful in retrieving the necessary principles
and methodology for doing this kind of work. We owe them a real bit of
gratitude for diving back into the dumpster of history and getting this
information, for example, (on) how to design mixed use urban buildings.

really going on at the moment is that the architects have not kept up
with the urbanists. The urban design is getting back to a pretty good
normative level where we’ve rediscovered that you have to bring the
building out to the sidewalk edge, if it’s a downtown business
building. It has to relate directly to the street and the public realm
which is composed mostly of the street. And that you have to make a
provision for retail at the ground floor and other things upstairs. We
get that now; we’re doing that pretty well, at least in my town of
Saratoga Springs, (NY), which is a comparable caliber sort of town to

What you’re seeing is that the architecture has
not really come back to this level of urban design. The architects are
still lost in the raptures of modernism, which includes an inability to
proportion buildings correctly or to ornament them with any kind of
conviction. One of the guiding principles of the modern experience in
modernist ideology is that you can’t do ornaments on buildings. That
has tended to persist and it’s still with us. At the highest level of
architecture, the highest levels of practice in architecture these
days, the big stars are still preoccupied with mystifying the public
and that’s exactly what we don’t need. We don’t need to confound
people’s expectations about how the building’s work or how they relate
to the public realm. In fact we need to reconnect the broken
connections. The architects are not helping at the moment although at
the non star level, the level that they’re practicing in Saratoga
Springs and perhaps over in Northampton, at the non star level they’re
not as preoccupied with making statements of mystification as much as
they are in New York (City) or Barcelona. But the lack of skills is
still obvious. We’ve had a very exuberant period of infill here
(Saratoga), with about seven to eight new buildings in the last
forty-eight months; almost all apartment buildings with retail on the
ground floor; they behave the way we want them to, the urban setting.
But the architecture really lacks conviction and grace.

NR: In
Northampton we’ve had a couple projects in the past couple of years
downtown where they’ve taken previously developed sites and put in, as
you say retail on the first floor, dwellings on the second floor and
that isn’t really being argued. What is being argued is there’s a
proposal now to put in thirty-one condominiums in an urban forest
that’s right now very close to wetlands. This would be single use,
there wouldn’t be any frontage on the street; they are not creating a
traditional street with the faces of the buildings towards the street.
They’re creating basically parking lots in the forest and the backs of
the buildings would front the parking lot. You would drive down a
traditional street that’s been there for over a hundred years with
single or maybe two family homes, quaint homes, and it would culminate
in a thirty-one unit subdivision of row houses. And the city recently
rewrote its local wetlands ordinance to allow for encroachment up to
within ten feet of wetlands in the built up areas. The argument has
been not so much that infill in and of itself is good or bad but rather
is (in regard to) the design of this particular project going forward.

Yeah, it sounds pretty bad. I think that’s correct to say if the
proposal does not include the creation of a legitimate urban street
that relates to the building, if it’s just a tower in a parking lot.

It is two or three story row house condominiums. There is no street per
se in the traditional sense. The streets now are dead-ends.

Well they need to create traditional streets and the town should make
it illegal to do any more cul de sac type development. Clearly that is
now something that we’re done with in America. For one thing it implies
that the thing is going to be automobile oriented. There is no question
that the car dependent period of our history is coming to an end. Now
what you’re seeing is an inability for us to let go of that idea. So
we’re still designing for it. I think the truth of the matter is it’s

NR: The argument in favor of these condominiums is that
it’s better to eliminate the in-town forest rather than to eliminate
the forest that’s in the outskirts of town.

JHK: You end up
with a whole set of issues that relate to confusion over urban and
rural typology, which is to say, people end up being very confused
about what’s the town and what’s the country. They’ve got an impulse to
both urbanize the rural edge and then to try to ruralize the affect of
urbanizing the rural edge. All their impulses are confused and I see
this all over the place.

NR: Unfortunately infill has been called, “good,” simply by the use of that term.

People have also co-opted the term New Urbanism and then done
half-assed versions of it. Just co-opting a name doesn’t make it good.

We’ve talked about the design but the buildings are designed poorly and
they don’t match the existing character of the neighborhood. It means a
lot more traffic and a lot more asphalt. When we’re going to be
building to within ten feet of wetlands it generally doesn’t account
for one hundred year floods and what homeowners might end up living
with after the property is conveyed to them…

See also:

Gazette Reports on Kohl Condo Hearings; Pictures of the Latest Proposal; Conservation Staff Report; HYLA Critique

Our Ad in Today’s Gazette: A Review of Our Objections to the Kohl Condo Proposal
Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”

Some claim that because Kohl’s proposed condos are within walking distance of downtown and have a high density, they are a good example of Smart Growth. However, there’s more to it than that, according to the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

True Smart Growth respects green infrastructure, such as trees and wetlands. These greenspaces filter the air, reduce the urban heat island effect, enhance property values and moderate stormwater flows, and they do it inexpensively. Urban greenspace is associated with improved physical and mental health and greater social cohesion in neighborhoods.

True Smart Growth preserves a community’s character, unlike development that “bears little relationship to a community’s history, culture, or geography.” ULI says homebuyers are increasingly attracted to vernacular and historical house styles that characterize their immediate area or region. Quoting Jim Constantine, a market specialist who does “curb appeal” surveys for developers, “Consumers are turned off by cookie-cutter subdivisions and the homogenous look of houses.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Kohl Construction is offering the neighborhood.

Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”

Smart Growth, in its full flower, contains numerous protections,
safeguards, checks and balances….

The problems with Kohl’s condo proposal include:

* It threatens green infrastructure by putting roads and structures as close as 35 feet or less to a wetland. Scientific evidence
indicates that substantial disturbance within 50 feet puts wetland
ecology at risk and threatens water quality. In addition, the condos
themselves appear to be at risk of flooding.

* It goes against the existing character and diversity of housing stock in the neighborhood by offering a monotonous, cookie-cutter design scheme with little sense of place.

* As Daryl LaFleur
observes, “the Kohl North Street area development proposal includes row
house condominiums set to the rear of parking lots, not free standing
detached single family homes that front the ‘street’, which would
better match the existing neighborhood and is also a tenet of Smart

Smart Growth is most palatable when it’s
implemented as a whole. When public and private actors are allowed to
cherry pick aspects that suit their convenience, the “Smart” can be

Grasping the Sustainable Northampton Vision: We Need Pictures
In all the 78 pages of the draft Sustainable Northampton Plan
(PDF), there is only a single graphic. It’s the Future Land Use Map, an
abstract, top-level view of the city. That’s unfortunate, because
without drawings, pictures and illustrations, it’s difficult to
envision how the Plan will change the look and feel of
Northampton. James Kunstler, an advocate of New Urbanism, discusses
this problem in “Home From Nowhere”, published in the September 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly…

Tailoring Infill and the New Urbanism to Northampton
The Atlantic Monthly had an excellent article on zoning and new
urbanism in September 1996: “Home From Nowhere” by James Kunstler. This
article appears to contain many of the ideas that support the concept
of infill. It can be found with related articles at
(a paid subscription may be required to access some articles)

Kunstler provides an example of a downtown streetscape that worked:

“Where I live, Saratoga Springs, New York, a magnificent
building called the Grand Union Hotel once existed. Said to have been
the largest hotel in the world in the late nineteenth century, it
occupied a six-acre site in the heart of town. The hotel consisted of a
set of narrow buildings that lined the outside of an unusually large
superblock. Inside the block was a semi-public parklike courtyard. The
street sides of the hotel incorporated a gigantic verandah twenty feet
deep, with a roof that was three stories high and supported by columns.
This facade functioned as a marvelous street wall, active and
permeable. The hotel’s size (a central cupola reached seven stories)
was appropriate to the scale of the town’s main street, called
Broadway. For much of the year the verandah was filled with people
sitting perhaps eight feet above the sidewalk grade, talking to one
another while they watched the pageant of life on the street. These
verandah-sitters were protected from the weather by the roof, and
protected from the sun by elm trees along the sidewalk. The orderly
rows of elms performed an additional architectural function. The trunks
were straight and round, like columns, reiterating and reinforcing the
pattern of the hotel facade, while the crowns formed a vaulted canopy
over the sidewalk, pleasantly filtering the sunlight for pedestrians as
well as hotel patrons. All these patterns worked to enhance the lives
of everybody in town-a common laborer on his way home as well as a
railroad millionaire rocking on the verandah. In doing so, they
supported civic life as a general proposition. They nourished our

“When I say that the facade of the Grand Union
Hotel was permeable, I mean that the building contained activities that
attracted people inside, and had a number of suitably embellished
entrances that allowed people to pass in and out of the building
gracefully and enjoyably. Underneath the verandah, half a story below
the sidewalk grade, a number of shops operated, selling cigars,
newspapers, clothing, and other goods. Thus the street wall was
permeable at more than one level and had a multiplicity of uses…”

goes on to suggest we should learn from the human-scaled success of
places like Nantucket, St. Augustine, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, Nob
Hill, Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis, Princeton, Greenwich
Village and Marblehead.

Kunstler discusses managing density to avoid congestion:

“Houses may be freestanding in the new urbanism, but their
lots are smaller than those in sprawling subdivisions. Streets of
connected row houses are also deemed desirable. Useless front lawns are
often eliminated. The new urbanism compensates for this loss by
providing squares, parks, greens, and other useful, high-quality civic
amenities. The new urbanism also creates streets of beauty and
character. This model does not suffer from congestion. Occupancy laws
remain in force — sixteen families aren’t jammed into one building, as
in the tenements of yore. Back yards provide plenty of privacy, and
houses can be large and spacious on their lots. People and cars are
able to circulate freely in the network of streets. The car is not
needed for trips to the store, the school, or other local places. This
pattern encourages good connections between people and their commercial
and cultural institutions…

“In order for a street to achieve
the intimate and welcoming quality of an outdoor room, the buildings
along it must compose a suitable street wall. Whereas they may vary in
style and expression, some fundamental agreement, some unity, must pull
buildings into alignment. Think of one of those fine side streets of
row houses on the Upper East Side of New York. They may express in
masonry every historical fantasy from neo-Egyptian to Ruskinian Gothic.
But they are all close to the same height, and even if their windows
don’t line up precisely, they all run to four or five stories. They all
stand directly along the sidewalk. They share materials: stone and
brick. They are not interrupted by vacant spaces or parking lots. About
half of them are homes; the rest may be diplomatic offices or art
galleries. The various uses co-exist in harmony. The same may be said
of streets on Chicago’s North Side, in Savannah, on Beacon Hill, in
Georgetown, in Pacific Heights, and in many other ultra-desirable
neighborhoods across the country.”

Springfield Works on Infill Housing Design Guidelines; Residential Design Presentation by Dietz & Company

Envisioning Sustainable Northampton: Notre Dame Urban Design Presentation – Video and Handout

Envisioning Sustainable Northampton: Notre Dame Urban Design Presentation – Slides