A Warning to Americans About Their Urban Planning
JAMES KUNSTLER'S ``The Geography of Nowhere'' is a tirade against modern city planning and mass production in the style of Tom Wolfe's ``From Bauhaus to Our House'' - caustic, strident, and thoroughly enjoyable. It is a chronicle of the destruction of America's natural and, in particular, manmade landscape and a partial prescription for its salvation.
We don't have to look far to see the proof of Kunstler's premise, whether it is the decline of inner-city neighborhoods, the clear-cutting of forests, or the uncontrolled sprawl of suburbia. This book recounts the history and nature of American capitalism, political policy, and real estate development as it has affected the natural and urban landscape. Its premise is that Americans have created an inhumane, energy dependent, and unsustainable environment.
One of the most interesting chapters of this book concerns the use of the planning grid to lay out Manhattan's streets and avenues and property lines on the Midwestern prairie. The planning grid's great benefit has been to logically set out regular boundaries for the ownership and development of private property. The grid's great detriment is its uniformity, for it reduces the city to a series of equivalent and indistinguishable parcels. Where the grid is spread over the prairie, it pays no attention to hills and streams while it gives rise to towns and settlements that look strangely dislocated.
Planning a city with a grid is the opposite of historic town evolution, whereby accommodation to the natural features of an area gives a city a distinct character and results in a harmonious coexistence with the landscape. The examples of this include many cities and towns of great beauty, such as Rome with its seven hills, the medieval hill towns of Tuscany, or the cascading white Moorish villages of the Spanish hillsides. But the grid ignores the individual character of landscape and cultures.
The great demon of Kunstler's book is the American automobile industry as it conspires, in his view, with the political and economic establishment to eliminate mass transit and encourage the growth of the automobile-bound suburb. The history of this development is a fascinating story, and its consequences are the real drama of the book. Kunstler contends that the expense of the automobile culture in terms of machinery, infrastructure, and fuel is too great for a world of diminishing resources.
Kunstler writes of all this with justifiable outrage. But as he spins into other facets of modern life, his argument becomes thin, expressing a kind of disdain for modern technical achievement. He despises ``mass production,'' for instance, and regards most modern design as inhuman, egocentric, and socially insensitive.
These are commonplace and easy arguments that confuse the tool with the object it creates. Technical advancements such as mass production have allowed tremendous advances in the quality of life. If they have also fostered a loss of values that were prevalent before modern industrialization, the reason may be that it was simply not possible for our forebears to do much of what we are capable of doing today.
Kunstler is a zealot, and in his zealotry he chooses not to dwell on the fact that what we produce and the landscape we make are an expression of our basic needs and interests. While he blames the automobile and its promoters for much of what is wrong with today's landscape, the automobile has reflected a fundamental need and desire in American culture. It is not realistic to believe that such needs have been invented and force-fed to us by a political and economic establishment we have no part in.
The prescriptions Kunstler endorses to cure the ills of modern city planning are, like his argument against mass production, too narrow. He praises the town-planning dictates for the community of Seaside, Fla., where the style, dimensions, and materials of all homes are rigidly defined. In so doing he offers us an updated version of the bourgeois community regulated by law where culturally motivated conformity is too weak.
Culture must evolve, and it will inevitably express the nature of that evolution through the land and townscape it creates. Conformity is not the point. Respect for human dignity and sound environmental planning is, and where Kunstler demands these values, one could not agree more.
Although this book has some shortcomings, Kunstler contributes to a discussion our society must hold if we are to shape our world as it continues to change at a dizzying pace.
It is not adequate for us to react to harms to our environment after the fact, given how much can be lost in doing so. It is wonderful to have a book that conveys deep convictions while being accessible to anyone who cares to read it.