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The Geography of Nowhere

by James Howard Kunstler

     Part fury and part nostalgia, The Geography of Nowhere argues that suburbs are no place for humans. Sameness is ubiquitous. Roads are dangerous and too wide. Zoning laws create isolated neighborhoods and ugly strips of commerce. Aesthetic considerations carry little weight. Status and money rule. Human interaction is rare.


     The suburbs began with railroad suburbs, spots where the rich congregated in wooded settings. Connected by a single rail line to the city and lacking industries, the railroad suburbs offered relief from 19th century pollution.


     Kunstler spent much of his life in towns, cities, and suburbs. Claiming towns are best, he traces American housing from Puritan river towns, to rigidly carved townships, to stifling tenements, to the ersatz Edens of suburbia.


     Architects, writes Kunstler, deserve much of the blame. Beginning with modernism, buildings began to look straight and sterile, like “decorated sheds.” Critics of the ugly were browbeaten for being anti-egalitarian.


    Architecture, however, is minor compared to changes brought by the automobile. The auto eliminated streetcars, then cities and individuals, though the auto industry proved helpful in defeating some fascists and like-minded individuals.


     The suburbs are designed for safety, the safety of powerful individuals in the construction and transportation industries. Suburbs are not designed for children, commuters, the old, and those without cars. Suburban neighborhoods are so empty of life that Americans chauffeur children to the rest of the world. Sidewalks are impractical so children share streets with two-ton vehicles traveling 50 miles per hour. Those who walk to and through the maze of roads, driveways, and parking lots along a commercial strip is considered homeless, eccentric, or just plain nuts. Kuntsler argues that there are ways to make automobiles fit in better with towns and cities.


     Zoning laws make matters worse. You cannot walk to get an ice cream cone because small retailers are banned. You cannot build apartments above businesses. You cannot build neighborhoods with aesthetics in mind.


     Kunstler details the geography of three big cities: Detroit, Portland, and Los Angeles. Detroit is worst off, having a People Mover that moves almost no one and a $357 million Renaissance Center that few visit. Desolate streets are common, though Detroit does boast the car free retreat of Greenfield Village, built by Henry Ford to preserve what he helped destroy.


    Kuntsler opines on numerous smaller locales as well. Disney World is a dumb cornucopia of hype, robots, plastic, violence, sunburn, waiting lines, and mind numbing leisure packaged as wholesome living. It offers history for the reason and imagination impaired.


Kuntsler's home of Saratoga Springs, New York is a mixture of good and bad.


     Kuntsler offers an alternative, what some call New Urbanism. (He calls it TND: traditional neighborhood development.) The example he provides is Seaside, Florida, which I learned is where The Truman Show was filmed. Some photos of the place:


     Seaside looks hokey and lifeless to me. There is more than a little irony in the town conceived as an alternative to mindless conformity becoming the set for a dumb, hackneyed film that tepidly criticizes mindless conformity. There may be a lesson in there somewhere, but I have a headache.


     There are too many more important problems for me to think about than community planning. Jobs, schools, media, and social arrangements are greater sources of alienation than buildings. Few things are more alienating than a hot, filthy, cramped, isolated steel ship, yet the alienation of the crew depends on moral imperatives. Leadership and friendships matter more than the physical structure of the ship.


     Kunstler does not provide much evidence that architecture is the major factor in various human ills. Frankly, I think malls are less alienating than many other places. Worth browsing.


Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 29, 2009


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