Thursday, December 29, 2011

The City in Mind

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition
© 2001 James Howard Kunstler
272 pages

The study of civilization is nothing less than the study of the culture of cities. Humanity has survived on the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, but not until we began to aggregate in cities did we truly come into our own. Cities have been the cultural centers of our race and the driving force of our history which unlocked our potential in the last ten thousand years or so, and in The City in Mind, James Howard Kunstler reflects on their role in our history and their contribution to the quality of our everyday lives, focusing on a panel of select cities that may allow us to see what makes a city work and what drives it towards failure.

In The Geography of Nowhere,  Kunstler railed against the disintegration of the American city and the rise of what he sees as an imminently inferior form of urban living -- suburban sprawl. Although a couple of chapters here reflect that theme,  the book is not as intensely focused. It reads something like a collection of essays, each giving the history of a given city's development and emphasizing one particular period or element. The opening chapter on Paris is devoted to Napoleon III and Hausmann's thoughtful redesign of Paris in the 19th century, for instance, and how it led to a fairly ugly medieval city's transformation into a jewel of urban design.  Kunstler visits the classic spirit with Rome, and with Boston shows the reader how a city can recover from decades of thoughtless planning and sprawl.  I bought this book in part because I delight in reading Kunstler when he's on a  critical rampage, destroying atrocious buildings and miles of commercial strips and box stories with biting with -- and two chapters on Las Vegas and Atlanta give him just the excuse. Atlanta is used as a case-study for the failure of edge cities, while Vegas -- which Kunstler surely deems the worst city in America -- showcases a wide variety of failures, from the practical to the spiritual.  Kunstler is not a religious man, but he sees proper urban design as something which enhances the value of life; when done properly, it honors us and creates a place worth living in.

The chapters mentioned are the book's strong points. There were other sections, like that on Mexico City, that I didn't quite understand the point of. Kunstler is informative there -- I'd known nothing about the history of the modern city following the Spanish conquest -- but to what urban design-related end. I had the same reaction to another chapter, possibly because I expected more sections along the lines of Paris and Las Vegas, chapters which clearly point out good and dismal approach at design, whereas Kunstler had a more general focus in mind. Some sections are available on Kunstler's website for your reading pleasure.

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