The Geography of Nowhere, by James Kunstler

The Geography of Nowhere, by James Kunstler

I was lent this book by a friend who is a lot more culturally and environmentally aware than I am. He makes attempts every now and then to make me see the bigger picture, and this was one of those attempts. This book is a polemic by James Kunstler against all that he sees wrong with the modern American landscape; in particular, the way that Americans have become slaves to their cars and have destroyed their communities in the process.

I thought that Kunstler had a lot of good points to make. He definitely gets a bit shrill at times, and is a bit too single-minded for my tastes with the bludgeoning of his "cars are evil" mantra, but his analysis of the situation is insightful. I found myself putting this book down while reading it, and reflecting how his observations about what makes a community work have been present (or not) in my own life. And I highly recommend any book that makes me think.

In particular, he decries the car and everything associated with it. Things like the suburbs and parking lots and superhighways which combine to give us the sterile subdivisions, strip malls, and unpleasant boulevards that most of us know. He longs for the day of a mixed-use community where people lived, worked, and socialized in the same place, instead of the present situation where one drives from one's home in the suburbs, via a highway to the office park, and then, in the evening, goes out to the clubs or restaurants area before driving home.

He also takes a detour into history, attempting to describe how American cities and communities got to this point, with several interesting chapters describing the Puritans, the prairies, and eventually the Modernist and Post-Modernist movements of architecture, which he hates with a passion. He then takes several case studies of various cities and towns which he likes or dislikes and delves into what makes them work (or not). Very interesting stuff.

I'll just mention a few of his observations that I thought were interesting. One was the need for a downtown area to have interesting things available for the pedestrian to look at. Many towns have zoning laws requiring buildings to be set back from the street to make room for parking lots, and this creates the strip mall boulevard effect where it is completely unpleasant to walk down the street; it only makes sense in the car. Contrast this with the downtown areas of small towns, where the stores push all the way out to the sidewalk, with big display windows to catch your eye and invite you in.

He also mentions the importance of design in laying out communities. One obvious instance is laying things out so that most things are within walking distance, instead of having to hop in the car and drive for each separate task. Another subtler point was having focal points along streets; he especially likes the idea of having T-intersections with important public buildings such as city halls or libraries at the T as a natural focus to the eye. Another suggestion is to have public park areas immediately accessible to allow for recreation in the midst of shopping, etc.

One last one is the importance of having private and public spaces, and designing the transition between the two. One huge advantage of the old-style porch in his eyes was that people could walk by and wave hi, so it was public, but it was also an area where you could have private conversations. It was an intermediary between the public space and one's private space, and thus connected the two. This contrasts with the present-day scenario where most of us live in apartments with an impenetrable door between the public and private arenas, and no way to indicate invitation at all. I have lived in three different apartment buildings for the past 7 years, and I don't think I ever met my neighbors in any of them. It's a sad state.

As can be seen, these ideas really resonated with me, as I immediately began applying them to my own living situations. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago named Wheaton, which had several of the characteristics that Kunstler praises. While it was car-centric, being a suburb, many of the commuters rode the train into the city, so there would be a grand parade of people to the train station each morning. There were lots of fields and parks to play in, and the downtown was built in the way that he desires, with lots of display windows and outdoor racks to lure you in. The whole town was walking distance when I was a kid; end to end, it was about two miles.

Unfortunately, the winds of change and profit blew through during my childhood, as a land developer bought up all the cornfields around town, and turned them all into cookie-cutter subdivisions, with monstrous two-story four-bedroom houses crammed together on quarter-acre plots of land. The new subdivisions were too far from the old downtown area, with too many dangerous high-speed streets to cross, so the developer turned some of his land at the intersection of two county highways into a humongous strip mall with every chain store known to man. This, of course, became the new center of town, and the quaint old downtown area has suffered terribly in response. So Kunstler's stories and observations really struck home with me, since I had witnessed similar events in my own hometown.

His observations also jibe well with why I chose my present home. I live in a condo near the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood of Oakland. Piedmont Avenue hosts a whole set of little shops and restaurants, and I doubt it has changed much in design since the 30's, so it retains much of the flavor that Kunstler craves. From my place, I can walk down the hill to the independent grocery store, or the bagel place, or go to a restaurant, bookshop or movie theater. Over the hill is a rose garden, and on the other side of that is the Grand Avenue shopping district with several more restaurants and shops to choose from. My street is lined with trees and bushes, and there's a little creek running through the area at the bottom of the hill. Everything is in walking distance, there's a nice mix of the residential and the commercial, and of apartments and houses. I now walk to the BART station most mornings, and rarely use my cars even on weekends, except to visit friends who live a long distance away. It's a great life, and I think that the fact that his recommendations match up so nicely to what I really like about it is indicative.

It also helps that I lived in Boston during college, where driving a car is suicidally stupid. The roads are tiny, the drivers are insane, and it generally takes longer to drive and find parking than it would to take public transportation and/or walk. So, again, the community has formed in a way that Kunstler would approve of, and which I grew to love while I lived there, even though it felt unnatural having come from the car-centric suburbs. One lingering benefit of my time in Boston was my love of good public transportation. Yes, it takes some of the control out of one's life, but it frees you up to do things other than drive, and life is too short to spend driving.

When my company moved into San Francisco recently, it forced many employees to start taking public transit because of traffic issues. It was interesting to me how many people were horrified at the idea of not driving. There was a stigma associated with public transit, that it was something only for poor people or something. And that attitude is saddening to me. It's not surprising, in light of the worshipful attitude that our society has towards cars. We judge people by their cars, we consider people successful if they have their cars. People that don't have cars are seen as oddballs and/or just plain poor. We aspire to have cars and be in control of their lives; when we were kids, we couldn't wait to be sixteen and be handed the keys. Now, though, while I am not as virulent as Kunstler in my antipathy towards cars, after having driven 70,000+ miles in the past four years while commuting, I feel that driving is highly overrated and have taken steps to remove its primacy from my life. Unlike Kunstler, I think that driving has its place; I would never think of giving up my car completely, because being able to hop up to Tahoe or down to LA for a weekend or haul things around is too handy.

I could go on and on, but I'll stop here. I recommend reading this book, reflecting on Kunstler's observations, and starting to think about how you can make your living situation better. If we all stand up and start choosing against the horrible suburbs, and start trying to find ways to drive less and live more, we will all be much happier.

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