Tim'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
May 07, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: own
Recommended for: Americans, suburbanites in particular
Read in May, 2008

In describing a certain way of viewing the landscape, Kunstler makes the observation that a Jacksonian student of landscape can study a fast food place (in his example a place called the Red Barn that looks like a red barn) and "never arrive at the conclusion that the Red Barn is an ignoble piece of shit that degrades the community." There is the thrust of Kunstler's book, a stirring if somewhat flawed look at our degraded landscape.
The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of the United States, from the puritans through the evil that was modernism. We learn about early town planning, how it varied from state to state depending on the prevailing community values. As we pushed ever further into our growing land mass, we lost that community and turned inward. It really turns to shit though when we arrive in modern times and that dastardly movement known as modernism rears its ugly head.
Modernism is a sort of favorite punching bag these days. Kunstler is very hard on it, pretty much blaming the artistic movement for the disaster that is suburbia. In that respect I find Adam Rome's The Bulldozer in the Countryside more convincing. In that book we get a more solid, less "ignoble piece of shit" based argument. Rome lays out the economic conditions in a more methodical way and takes apart your average suburban house to show why it is an ignoble piece of shit. Kunstler just seems to hate how it looks. The tone changes a little later on and he elaborates on why suburbia is bad and what exactly is bad about it(height restrictions, lack of mixed uses, set back requirements). I also find the arguments put forth in David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity to be instructive. Harvey argues (and this gels with Rome's argument) that much of the "modern aestetic" came, at least in part, from the discovery of new building materials and techniques. Harvey agrues that the return to ornamentation in the postmodern period is a result of a refinement of those techniques. Kunstler also ignores the fact—again brought up by Rome—that the traditional way of building houses was not up to the task of dealing with the postwar boom, and that it was not so much an embrace of modernist design as an embrace of economical building practices.
Oddly enough, it is his relentless attack on aesthetics that provide this book with its relevance. While Rome's book is more technical (it has a lenghty chapter on the problems of septic tanks), Kunstler focuses on ecology and how we interact with places. I don't think that I agree entirely on the aesthetic principles he seems to favor (I don't think the garish colors used on Pinkberry locations harms the fabric of the Village), but I do agree that the look of a building (and how it "interacts with the street") is important (I lean more towards the iteraction aspect).
The last part of the book deals with efforts to bring back this sense of community, or at least provide us with pretty things to look at. We learn about Traditional Neighborhood Design (part of New Urbanism), land trusts (to save farmland), and what sounds like Transit Oriented Design (though it isn't called that in the book). He does a good job of not focussing too much on the look of buildings in Seaside (the TND posterchild), instead focussing on community. (This book came out too long ago to evaluate how successful that project has been, perhaps there is an updated edition?) He also points out the oft-forgotten part of the Seaside development, that it could only have been built in the middle of nowhere because of the zoning regulations that were present in Florida at the time. Many critics harp on the remoteness of Seaside (and the fact that it is a new development, which means it isn't exactly preserving open space), claiming that it is a glorified suburb. I like that Kunstler focusses on the functioning of this town and the difficulties the developers had in bringing it about. He also makes a point of referring to it as a demonstration project. He does however mention other developments in the same vein, but fails to address the fact that these are also entirely new developments. A few pages later he expresses his desire to see a new, more "sustainable" form of development. Surely filling up more land with deveopments cannot be considered sustainable. I guess what I wanted was more talk of rehabilitating broken places (if it is possible to save suburbia) and reusing abandoned cities (of which there are many).
Many of the faults are minor (his hatred of modernist architecture is forgivable and not too central to his argument), so I do recommend this book. It is entertaining and passionate; passion for city planning is something we need to see more of in America. I can't really blame him for his indignant tone. After reading about all the ways in which compentent city planning is actually illegal in this country, one can't help but be angry. Kunstler provides a great introduction to the issues that doesn't get bogged down by dry analysis. It moves along quickly and will hopefully inspire readers to learn more about the issues that are brought up.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Mike (last edited May 14, 2008 09:29PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Bularz he does discuss the conditions that allowed Seaside to happen. "Fortunately, when Davis, Duany, and Company got underway, Walton County had no building codes, nor even an official inspector, so they were able to write their own rules." p256
I'm relatively sure it was mentioned before the TND section within the chapter, or a page or two after.

..not that this detracts much from your review, the book's fresh in my mind right now, and I'm pretty sure he mentioned it more specifically.

edit: there is also a follow up book, although I haven't read it.

message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Thanks for the comment. Perhaps what I wrote wasn't entirely clear, or maybe I messed up in another part of the review, but I mentioned that Kunstler talks about the conditions: "He also points out the oft-forgotten part of the Seaside development, that it could only have been built in the middle of nowhere because of the zoning regulations that were present in Florida at the time."

Thanks for pointing out the follow up, I need to find a copy of that.

Mike Bularz from looking into it, the follow up seems not so great, at least not as good as Geography.

after this book, he's also written one covering his view of the future once we run out of oil, global warming type stuff. etc.
here> http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/83...

what did interest me is the other side of the story, the city. he covers that in

message 4: by Jason (new)

Jason Excellent review. Thanks.

message 5: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Thanks.

message 6: by Shaye (new)

Shaye well written.

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