Thoughts on The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler

Published in 1993, Geography hit when a small group of individuals was looking at how Americans lived and realized it was ridiculously detrimental in many aspects, especially socially and economically. Unfortunately not much has changed in the 15 years since publication. Kunstler realizes things must change as he takes a wide view looking at suburban American life. Cheap gas prices and a booming economy allowed us to leave our cities behind for private houses on acre+ lots. With that transition we lost our public spaces and places worth living. But with increasing gas prices, a receding economy, global warming, and many other negative aspects, Kunstler hopes by giving an overview of the suburbs (and all bad that comes with them and its a lot) and looking at specific examples, that we will make the necessary changes. He sees a grim future without a return to a traditional way of life that includes less driving, more public spaces, and less fantasy.

I think the most telling aspect of the book comes near the end with the following quote,

“When they come to chronicle the decline of this civilization, they’re going to wonder why we were debating flag burning, abortion, and broccoli eating instead of the fundamental issues of how we live and use the environment.” – Bob Yaro (Regional Plan Association in New York City)

While the debate and discussion has expanded, it still has not reached the every day citizen. Being in architecture graduate school, this is an every day discussion. But even with $4+ a gallon gas, people don’t seem to care. The fact that the highway is bumper to bumper during every commute, not because of an accident, but because there are too many cars on the road and nobody gives a f*ck, is telling. All the while the suburbs continue to grow.

Kunstler takes a chronological approach, laying out a brief history of cities and the transition to suburbs. Along the way he describes vividly the horrors that are the American suburb- feeder streets, strip malls, and a lost sense of community (Detroit and Los Angeles as examples). Quite honestly, its depressing reading through this history, especially when you realize there is no historical precedent for suburbs. We left the city to develop the countryside because we could. Following World War II we had the economy and the people (returning servicemen) to set up what we thought was going to be paradise. If this was a government funded science experiment the funding would have been pulled a long time ago. Rather this government subsidized social experiment as been allowed to persist unfettered for 60 years. But things must change.

Kunstler knows we cannot continue living as we do and remain a thriving civilization. While Kunstler really doesn’t give his own suggestions for correcting what exists he does provide examples. One of the most popular movements is Traditional Neighborhood Design. The biggest advocates of this are Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk who’s most known examples are Seaside, FL and The Kentlands, MD. They penned Suburban Nation which lays out their proscriptive rules for creating neighborhoods that attempt to be a reaction against the American suburb. While all the alternates to suburbs have merit, they will not spread and take root until the discussion reaches everyday citizens.

I don’t have to tell you about the negative aspects of suburbs. Walk out your front door and look down the street. Hop in your car and drive around the block. Continue driving mile after mile to accomplish all the day’s errands. Don’t bother talking to your neighbor or anyone else, because quite frankly thats hard to do in the comfort of your automobile. For most of you, what Kunstler rails against in The Geography of Nowhere is what you encounter in your everyday life. You might not want to hear what he’s saying, but you should anyway. Things have to change.


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