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The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made… (1993)
by James Howard Kunstler
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This very interesting book looks at city planning and architecture, and how they have both failed to produce cities that people actually want to live in, and that are sustainable over the long run. He hates suburbs and shopping malls and big box stores; most of all, he hates privately owned automobiles. He likes small towns. He likes mixed use areas. He likes public transit.
I agree with him on almost all these things. Kids in suburbs are kind of trapped with no place to go unless mom drives them. There is no corner store or movie theater a few blocks away they can walk to. If you need a carton of milk when you live in one of those developments, you have to get in the car and drive to the nearest shopping center, which sits in a sea of parking spots. Because stuff is so spread out, public transportation won’t pay for itself, and no real community is built between people.
Modern zoning doesn’t allow mixed use- there are no apartments over little stores so people can live close to a job. There are no small factories in between eating places and stores. When faced with undeveloped or farm land, planners think to preserve the rural feeling by making building plots of 5 or 10 acre minimum, but this doesn’t work. It’s really hard for a farmer to keep using that 5 or 10 acres when it’s fenced off from other plots, and is bisected by a driveway, and has a house in the middle with a lawn and garden. We face that where I live; owners want their 5 acre lots hayed but farmers find the odd shaped plots that are left after people build too difficult to maneuver cutting and baling equipment in. It’s green space, but it’s not feeding anyone anymore. And it’s not green space that the public can use, either.
Written more than 20 years ago, Kunstler’s observations are still valid. Nothing has changed other than that we’re even closer to running out of fossil fuels and urban slums are getting bigger. Municipal buildings and shopping areas are still ugly. More suburban developments have been built. More big box stores have run small business out. The problem with the book are two things: one, the author presents few solutions although he does show a few; and, two, he’s a bloody snob. He puts down the majority of the population as not having any taste or class; he makes statements about the poor that make me, a poor person all my life, wish I could have a few harsh words with him. But despite these things, I feel his book should be required reading for anyone going into architecture, city planning, or being a small town/county politician. What he points out should be obvious, but people just don’t see it because they are so used to it. There *are* options to the way we live today.
Terrific read. Kunstler writes very well and pulls no punches. This was the best book I've read in years and an excellent invitation to delving into the tradeoffs in both architecture and the public spaces where it lives.
This Author gets very high marks for his politics and vision on this important subject, but loses points for his tendency to belabour the obvious. This is a work which, paradoxically, I would like all my friends to read -- and then put aside forever in favout of further, more sophisticated studies.
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Wikipedia in English (6)
Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built since the end of World War II. This tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside is not simply an expression of our economic predicament, but in large part a cause. It is the everyday environment where most Americans live and work, and it represents a gathering calamity whose effects we have hardly begun to measure." "In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler traces America's evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where everyplace is like noplace in particular, where the city is a dead zone and the countryside a wasteland of cars and blacktop. Now that the great suburban build-out is over, Kunstler argues, we are stuck with the consequences: a national living arrangement that destroys civic life while imposing enormous social costs and economic burdens. Kunstler explains how our present zoning laws impoverish the life of our communities, and how all our efforts to make automobiles happy have resulted in making human beings miserable. He shows how common building regulations have led to a crisis in affordable housing, and why street crime is directly related to our traditional disregard for the public realm." "Kunstler takes the reader on a historical journey to understand how Americans came to view their landscape as a commodity for exploitation rather than a social resource. He explains why our towns and cities came to be wounded by the abstract dogmas of Modernism, and reveals the paradox of a people who yearn for places worthy of their affection, yet bend their efforts in an economic enterprise of destruction that degrades and defaces what they most deeply desire." "Kunstler proposes sensible remedies for this American crisis of landscape and townscape: a return to sound principles of planning and the lost art of good place-making, an end to the tyranny of compulsive commuting, the unreality of the suburb, the alienation and violence of downtown, the vulgarity of the highway strip, and the destruction of our countryside. The Geography of Nowhere puts the issue of how we actually live squarely at the center of our ongoing debate about the nation's economy and America's future.
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Kunstler starts with a historical overview of housing and community development in the U.S., starting with colonial towns and ending with the soulless suburban sprawl of today. Although much of the content was familiar, the historical overview had a number of surprises.
If you grew up in the U.S., when you think of an agricultural community you think of isolated farm houses surrounded by fields. Historically, agricultural communities have had a rather different setup. Homes were clustered together, and these town centers were surrounded by the farm lands. Your farmland was not necessarily adjacent to your property, but it was within a manageable distance. This layout provided safety and was more efficient for people without cars. The country sprawl that we think of as typical today is actually a result of the vast amounts of lands in the American west and the governments policies for settling them.
The history of the suburb is also surprising. Again in the U.S., you generally think of suburbs as the result of car induced sprawl. However, the first suburbs were built in the 1800s as communities along rail lines. They shared many features with modern suburbs (people lived there but did not work there, they were often planned communities of similar homes). However, they differed in one key respect. The original suburbs were built to human scale. Because they were rail suburbs, the residents still had to be able to walk within the community. Furthermore, the railroad station provided a natural center to the community, something which modern suburbs lack.
The next part of the book discusses the changes in house styles in the U.S. This part contains a fair bit of ranting about modern architecture. [b:Home A Short History of an Idea|134218|Home A Short History of an Idea|Witold Rybczynski|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347708868s/134218.jpg|129307] by Witold Rybczynski does a better job of presenting similar information.
Kunstler presents case studies of 6 cities, pointing out what is right about them and what is wrong, and closes with a discussion of what is being done to make better places and stronger communities. Overall, I enjoyed The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler ranted enough to be amusing without being distracting. The historical perspective and the case studies were valuable resources. Even though this book was published in 1993, it is still relevant. In fact, it may be increasingly relevant as the crash of the housing bubble lends energy to community rebuilding efforts. ( )