Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Tapho Files 1: James Howard Kunstler

WELCOME to a new feature at Whistling Past the Graveyard. To kick things off, noted author James Howard Kunstler, a well-respected voice in the New Urbanism movement, answered several questions for me about cemeteries and New Urbanism. Kunstler is the author of several leading books about our modern environs, including "The Geography of Nowhere," "Home from Nowhere" and "The Long Emergency." His latest book is "World Made by Hand," billed as a "novel of the Long Emergency set in upstate New York in the not distant future." He also is a renowned speaker and the star of the KunstlerCast weekly audio program, as well as an accomplished painter.
In the future, I hope to offer more views from other leading figures of our day.
But first, James Howard Kunstler:

Whistling Past the Graveyard: Where do cemeteries fit in within the overall planning picture, via New Urbanism or even among more "traditional" planners?

JHK-- As far as I know, the cemetery has been an afterthought at best, and a non-thought more usually when it comes to anything in post 1950 planning. Prior to that, they enjoyed status as park-like amenities in cities that were smaller and slower than today's are -- with their disruptive overlays of Happy Motoring. The two prototypes for this were Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which were designed explicitly for strolling and laid out with great thought and artistry. This tended to be so because people died in places that had been their homes most of their lives. Our collective attitude today seems to regard death as a medical error, something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. Most new cemeteries are laid out with all the thought and care of tract housing, and surrounded by chain link fence (a material more suited to dog runs and scarp yards). The sense of the sacred seems to have eluded us. Now it is little more than a below-ground storage problem, with all the additional hydrological concerns. To my knowledge, the New Urbanists have not included a cemetery in any of their plans.

WPTG: Cemeteries often get lost amid discussions about housing, mixed use, transit, infrastructure, etc. All are legitimate concerns, so how can cemeteries step up their game and become part of the conversation and get some much-needed attention? Is this solely a from-the-ground-up movement, or can it come from the top down?

JHK-- The decades ahead -- the period I call "The Long Emergency" will furnish plenty of "customers" for cemeteries as the "usual suspects" (starvation disease, hardship, war) do their things in a resource-scarcer world. In general, our values and mores are likely to change radically in the face of this, including our treatment of the dead. Note too that our towns and cities will be changing a lot too -- and not in the direction of science fiction -- more like a return to the mid-19th century.

WPTG: Why do you think cemeteries have been so underrepresented in planning/New Urbanism discussions?

JHK -- Two reasons. 1. as in any real estate venture of our time a cemetery would have to occupy valuable lots that might otherwise be assigned to houses. 2. Few New Urbanism projects have active churches associated in their design. Add perhaps another: Americans in recent decades have moved so frequently that there is little expectation of dying-in-place.

WPTG: Who are the people you know who remain mindful of cemeteries in their work?

JHK -- nobody, really.

WPTG: There seem to be nearly as many zoning designations for cemeteries as there are communities. In my town, Winslow Township, NJ, they're a "non-conforming use." Two towns up the highway, they have specs down to lot size, frontage, percent of paved surface, and the like. So what's the best way to include cemeteries in master plans and the like? Is there a need for some uniformity?

JHK: You may find this answer impertinent, but I genuinely believe that the disorders of "The Long Emergency" will be such that planning departments will be dismantled for lack of government funding and the public will ignore the zoning laws as the motoring experience and all its niggling demands shrinks into history.

WPTG: Where, in your travels, have you seen the best recognition (for lack of a better word) of cemeteries and their role in an urban-scape?

JHK -- In many parts of the eastern USA where cemeteries were established in relation to churches, and where they were part of that mid-19th Century park movement. A very high proportion of people are cremated these days -- I suppose because they haven't lived in a given place long enough to have allegiance to it, or the place is not worthy of allegiance, or because it's less expensive for surviving family members.


Jonia said...

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zozer319 said...

I've followed Kunstler's work on and off, but this was perhaps the most insightful thing of his I've read so far. Cemeteries will remain a religious (i.e. private domain) issue as well as a civic one, not to mention the fact that more people have been choosing cremation and may choose other more environmentally-responsible means in the future. However, it is an important aspect of any city (historic or otherwise) which should be in a planner's mind when looking at the area as a whole. Thanks for the food for thought!

Bill said...

Historic Mt Auburn Cemetary may be a prized example the park-cemetary model, but at least one of its operational policies really sucks. While the cemetary welcomes the motoring public, cyclists are prohibited. In his book, The Paradise of All These Parts; A Natural History of Boston, author John Mitchell notes that even the designer of Mt. Auburn Cemetary considered the Forest Hill Cemetary, in nearby Jamaica Plain, to be a "better example of a landscaped country cemetary." And the enlightened management at Forest Hills Cemetary welcomes bicycles!

Rory Williams said...

Another interesting example is Mount Pleasant Cemetary in Toronto, which is active (i.e. still growing) but also integrated into part of a cycling and walking trail network. This network effectively links the cemetary with other green open spaces in the city, making it part of the life (and death) of the city.

Barbara Walsh said...

The first time I heard about cemeteries regarding planning was an article about the planned community of Columbia, MD where as it aged they realized they left out a cemetery. I also had to do research on the regulation of cemeteries when as a local planner the local cemetery wanted to construct musoleums for which we had no regulations. There were some other problems we encountered with the local regulations are necessary.