Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Geography of Nowhere

The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
© 1993 James Howard Kunstler
303 pages

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same
There’s a green one, and a pink one, and a blue one, and a yellow one --
And they’re all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same
(“Little Boxes”, Pete Seeger)

James Kunstler’s A Geography of Nowhere is a scathing rebuke of land-use and development policies of the past hundred years which do nothing but maximize the profit of developers, enslaving the American economy to a need for expansion, while offering humanity nothing but a soulless and miserable expanse of boxes.He promotes an approach to land development that emphasizes human needs and communities that are not only “human sized”, but worth living in and caring about.

After a brief introduction -- recounting a cartoon villain’s mad scheme to make everyone dependent on freeways which he builds and on cars which he sells -- Kunstler begins the book with a history of development patterns since the first European set foot on American soil.  Kunstler sees the overall pattern of American development as being set against the European pattern that emphasizes the integrity of local communities. In his view, American development has been driven by individual greed and the desire to maximize profit through endless subdivision and mass production of living and working spaces. Most American counties and cities are organized along strict grids that give no thought  to the landscape or to the humans that will live in them.

As the book progresses, Kunstler rants against Modernist building styles and launches into a history of suburbanization, beginning with the first (late 19th century)  trolley-dependent communities. The root of the suburban impulse, Kunstler says, is that people want to escape the cities. In addition to the primary desires to get away from the noise and grime, Kunstler believes American suburbanites are attempting to find escape from the spiritual bankruptcy of the commercial-driven city. Ultimately, given the way suburbs will continue to develop, this is a futile goal. The vast expanses of subdivisions are no better, ultimately: they repeat the failures of urban planning and provide nothing in the way of community, isolating people further.

Kunstler contrasts the failings of modern American cities and suburbs to the ideal of a small town community, placing particular emphasis on the importance of a local economy. In his view, there is no community without a local economy. Not only are American development policies unwise and untenable from a long-term perspective (given their dependence on oil), but they are spiritually void. Kunstler returns to this often, writing on the importance of a sense of “place”, of the connections that tie people together and to the land.  He sees building aesthetics as important to maintaining human happiness within communities, as various elements (T-intersections and tree-lined roads, for instance) give us psychological security.  I find this fascinating, and it’s making me itch to read Alain de Botton’s book on the architecture of happiness.

Kunstler thus presents two premises: one, that suburbanization and urban sprawl are in the long term economically disastrous; and two, that these matters contribute to the unhappiness of the people who live within them. Speaking for myself, my own quality of life increased when I moved from a semi-suburban area dependent on automobiles to a small university town with a genuine sense of community, and one in which I can walk anywhere I want to go. I’ve developed a passion for small-scale human communities and am repulsed by the same sprawl that fascinated and excited me as a child. I am thus an ideal audience for Kunstler.

His ideas are worth considering, I believe, and are not his alone. although I am cautious about recommending the book given Kunstler’s tone. Although easily keeping my attention and often inducing me to laughter, he is exceptionally opinionated -- sometimes bitterly so. This may turn off readers who would have otherwise benefited from the deleterious trends that he points out. There may be better books on the same general topic, and if I read them I will point them out. For the moment, though, this is the only one I know of and I cautiously pass it on to you.

Born in 1948, I have lived my entire life in America's high imperial moment. During this epoch of stupendous wealth and power, we have managed to ruin our greatest cities, throw away our small towns, and impose over the countryside a joyless junk habitat which we can no longer support. Indulging in a fetish of commercialized individualism, we did away with the pubic realm, and with nothing left but private life in our private homes and private cars, we wonder what happened to the spirit of community. We created a landscape of scary places and became a nation of scary people. 

From the book, page 273.


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