Adam's Reviews > The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
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's review
Jan 01, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: cities-and-planning
Read in April, 2005 , read count: 1

Kunstler hates suburbia, sprawl, and corporate control, and champions well-planned cities and towns, public space, and democracy. The Geography of Nowhere is a satisfying read because he is able to explain the causes of our offensive landscapes and explain why it is that we are (or should) be repulsed by them. While Kunstler is able to articulate the need for more humane communities, he ultimately puts too much faith in certain “new urbanism” developments to re-design them. It appears he revisits this in his sequel, Home from Nowhere, which is on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. I read this book as I was beginning my degree in community development at a college of urban planning and policy. It was a helpful book to lay out both some of the failures as well as the progressive renaissance in urban planning as I was embarking into that field. Kunstler's language is both biting and playful, seldom academic, and therefore recommended for a wide audience of anyone who pays attention to their environment. I should also mention that much of his book is a look at small town development and its problems, though my review will focus on urban areas. The review below was published in another form in my friend's zine. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll find you a copy.

Kunstler's thesis is simple, but not simplistic: over the last century, the automobile has been a primary engine for development, and in the process, has ruined our surroundings. Auto-led development has destroyed some of our greatest communities and has replaced them with dehumanizing places.

Kunstler’s task is to trace historically how our cultural and physical environments have degraded one another, facilitated by the automobile. The rise of the automobile simultaneously contributed to our ongoing ideological project of privatization as well as our physical pattern of expansionist growth (often for its own sake). These patterns have long histories in our civilization, dating to our colonial-era seizure of North America. Land distribution, from the start, was speculative, meaning that a large tract was bought by one party and divided and sold at a profit to many other parties. This practices “degrades the notion of the public realm,” (27) because there is no incentive for collective ownership, and consequently no collective use. The physical and cultural meet if we are to agree with Kunstler that the public realm is the manifestation of the common good. This is a basic premise for all of Kunstler’s analyses. The pattern of expansionist growth, of course, is deeply rooted in our society, stemming from the “manifest destiny” ideology of our western-moving colonizing project.

Because I’m interested in Chicago, Kunstler’s discussion of cities is most important to me. He argues that the automobile simultaneously destroyed city transit and enabled two waves of class flight to the suburbs. How did the automobile rise to such a position of power? Beginning in the 20s, General Motors (GM) began to purchase electric streetcar lines, tear out tracks, and convert them to bus routes. The electric streetcar was a relatively new invention, and in its short time operated as a clean, efficient, and inexpensive mode of mass transit. But GM removed streetcar tracks, thereby creating a demand for buses, as well as a need for space to accommodate the car boom that soon followed. Along with Standard Oil and Firestone Tire and Rubber, GM created various subsidiaries in order to systematically dismantle all electric transit. They succeeded, because by 1950, more than 100 electric-run trolley systems were replaced by gasoline-powered buses (92). More importantly, this process facilitated the privatization of transportation: with the trolleys gone, there was more room personal car use. Furthermore, cities suffered severely in order to accommodate the personal car boom: Between 1910 and 1940 Chicago spent $340 million on street widening. There is a class element to this as well, given that the poor who could not afford cars subsidized those who could, by paying taxes (the car is a private vehicle, but which travels over public space) (90). Other losses were priceless: highway construction, part of the shameful era known as urban renewal, leveled entire neighborhoods and displaced thousands, which in Chicago usually meant poor communities of color.

One reason cities bent to the will of the auto-related industries, is because auto-related industries, were, essentially the economy during Great Depression. The car, and the public infrastructure needed to support it, created jobs, and highway construction stimulated real estate growth.

Of course, Kunstler takes on the suburbs. He really hates post 50's suburbia, and his emotions serve as strong propellers for a sound analysis. The automobile, through highways, led people and development further from city cores. Highways themselves became sites for development, giving new markets in transit. Hence the cheaply constructed and utilitarian commercial buildings that pepper any intercity road systems: gas stations, convenience stores, fast food joints, etc. However, the characteristics of these developments, namely (1) Extreme separation of uses and (2) Large distances between them, are also part of the intrasuburban developments,. In other words, commercial, residential, industrial, and civic developments are isolated at great distances from one another. Separation of zoning uses originates from a good cause: keeping industry away from homes. However, Kunstler argues that post-war suburbs take this to an extreme, to the point where it is difficult to survive in the suburbs without a personal car.

Extreme separation of uses means that: “there are no corner stores in housing subdivisions, though the lack of them is a great inconvenience to anyone who would like to buy a morning newspaper or a quart of milk without driving across town. The separation of uses is also the reason why there are no apartments over the stores in the thousands of big and little shopping centers built since 1945, though our society desperately needs cheap, decent housing for those who are not rich” (177).

Kunstler determines that the separation of uses and large distances degrade the quality of building construction. Unlike a traditional mainstreet, on which people walk and experience commercial buildings on a “humans scale,” suburban developments in their ubiquitous malls, are experienced on a larger scale, via the automobile. Because suburban commercial developments are isolated malls, their architecture has no context within which to fit. The result that Kunstler calls “obscene,” “irreverent,” and “cartoonish.” A degradation in the design of spaces corresponds with a degradation in their use. We do not experience such places as a coherent part of our community; rather; we transport ourselves to them at intervals to satisfy our individual consumption needs.

A perfect example of how a degraded physical environment degrades our cultural environment is the mall. Effectively, the mall commercializes the public realm for the quintessential privatized suburb. In a mall, you may meet and engage with fellow citizens and strangers, but within constraints: security forces prohibit you from being there during certain hours, and from engaging in certain activities (exercising your freedom of speech, etc.).

Basic public amenities, such as sidewalks, are conspicuously lacking in many suburban developments, despite the real estate-promoted myth that suburbs are the best places to raise children. Indeed, the auto-driven developments of suburbs can be hostile to the rearing of children. An example is the fact that streets are made to accommodate the protection of cars (property) over pedestrians (people): trees are sometimes prohibited within certain footage of the street, because they would damage a car that has come off the road, despite the fact that trees might protect a pedestrian from the reckless vehicle.

A fascinating part of Kunstler's work is his reading of some of America's tourist places. I will refrain from spoiling Kunstler's descriptions of Disney World, which are uncompromisingly critical and hilarious. He also examines Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, a historical reconstruction of a town typical of the times of the famous industrialist's childhood. It is a place for Detroit residents to drive to, park their cars outside, and experience life as we imagine it to have been in the 1880s. Disney World, Greenfield Village, and other tourist places are alluring to us because they offer spaces of fantasy; an escape from everyday life. Kunstler argues that one important way that these places are fantastic is because there is no hint of the car, nor car-oriented space. The supreme irony, is of course, that Henry Ford, perhaps the individual most associated with the car, created a tourist place that is fantastic and wonderful for its reconstructed pre-automobile state.

So, can we ever overthrow the car and reject our history of whack urban planning? Kunstler answers that it's not a question of can, but when.
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