Node still under development! First created: 01-17-2001, last edited: 12-31-2001. Permission granted by the author via email for the excerpt.

The Geography of Nowhere

(The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.)

James Howard Kunstler

Published by: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster(trademark)
ISBN: 0-671-70774-4

A scathing, witty probe into the frequently warped ‘American Dream’ which skillfully dissects the myth and myopic from the fact and founded in something of an expose or reaffirmation that begins just a bit before the beginning (of the end?). It is well sourced and referenced, informative, effortless to read. Like many excellent, fascinating books of nearly any sort, it can also be a bit grim. It is also nearly impossible to summarize, but I’ll try.

In one sentence: If you’ve ever felt ill at ease from your likely urban or suburban environment, hesitated to engage in hyper-consumerism or monoculture, wished cars would go away, or otherwise questioned and resisted the mantra that statesthings are they way they are because that’s just how they are, have been , and will be, forever”, you need to read this book.

If you do not feel a single morsel of unease about how most of us in the U.S. are living and the resources we consume, this book may help.

While the book is not entirely anti-anything, many strong statements are made, that Kunstler may or may not have the data to back up. I don’t agree with everything he says. However, the information, history and research represented within are not to missed, regardless of differences of opinion.

I love this book not because it tells me what is wrong with western civilization, though it does that succinctly and severely, but why it is wrong. I already knew I did not feel comfortable about our life out of balance, and I understood many of the sources of this discomfort, but I’d have quite a difficult time telling anyone why. Kunstler does this so eloquently, simply, and easily that it’s easy to forge] and overlook that he is literall] tearing down and exposing nearly everything we know and take for granted about most of our day to day lives. It is never comfortable to have your reality base torn out from beneath you.

One important idea presented by Kunstler is that a major component of the myth of the ‘American Dream’ is at least a small plot of land, with a detached dwelling, and a teasing simulacra of nature tidily organized about the small plot, and that any challenge to this doctrine is un-American, subversive, and even communist or anarchistic. This idea, Kunstler states, derives from the historic western European caste system of noble and serf, among other factors. I posit that one reason that many people feel uncomfortable, even reactionary or defensive when this simple “given and accepted truth” is challenged is that it’s difficult for even the most enlightened to accept or even marginally confront the idea that everything they’ve ultimately desired and struggled for all their life may be ultimately unhealthy and/or wrong.

Another gem is the idea that ‘gridcity and street systems that seemed to spread and ooze over the prairies, valleys, and basins all the way to the coast and back are facilitated and even seeded by the arbitrary way the newer states boundaries were plotted rectilinearly without regard to local geographic feature, terrain or watershed. State divisions were therefore rectilinear, as were subdivisions, and so on. He even suggests, more or less, that this angular, geometrically unvaried environment and overall system leads to (in my insufficient and unintentional pun of a choice of words), thinking square. Homes, parking lots, offices, buildings, cars, TVs, to name some impossibly obvious examples. And this is all just the proverbial fraction of splintered glacial floe above sea level, to say the least.

The following is an excerpt of the book that illustrates Kunstler’s incisive and occasionally derisive take on some of the aforementioned issues. I had difficulty deciding between this partial chapter, or a portion earlier in the book where he skillfully and adeptly rips this century’s modernist and postmodernist eras to small shreds of monochromatic confetti. See: Bauhaus (The school of design, not the band.)

-excerpt begins-

THE EVIL EMPIRE - Chapter 7 – (Incomplete)

Americans have been living car-centered lives for so long that the collective memory of what used to make a landscape or a townscape or even a suburb humanly rewarding has nearly been erased. The culture of good place-making, like the culture of farming, or agriculture, is a body of knowledge and acquired skills. It is not bred in the bone, and if it is not transmitted from one generation to the next, it is lost.

Does the modern profession called urban planning have anything to do with making good places anymore? Planners no longer employ the vocabulary of civic art, nor do they find the opportunity to practice it The term civic art itself has nearly vanished in common usage. In some universities, urban-planning departments have been booted out of the architecture schools and into the schools of public administration. Not surprisingly, planners are now chiefly preoccupied with administrative procedure: issuing permits, filling out forms, and shuffling papers - in short, bureaucracy. All the true design questions such as how wide should Elm Street be? and what sort of buildings should be on it? were long ago "solved" by civil engineers and their brethren and written into the municipal zoning codes. These mechanistic "solutions" work only by oversimplifying problems and isolating them from the effect they have on the landscape and on people's behavior.

It has been established, for example, that suburban streets all over America ought to be as wide as two-lane county highways, regardless of whether this promotes driving at excessive speeds where children play, or destroys the spatial relationship between the houses on the street. Back in the 1950s, when these formulas were devised, the width of residential streets was tied closely to the idea of a probable nuclear war with the Russians. And in the aftermath of a war, it was believed, wide streets would make it easier to clean up the mess with heavy equipment.

Zoning codes devised by engineering firms have been "packaged" and sold to municipalities for decades, eliminating the need for local officials to think about local design issues. This is one reason why a subdivision in Moline, Illinois, has the same dreary look as a subdivision in Burlington, Vermont. All the design matters are supposedly settled, and there has been little intelligent debate about them for years. At the layman's level the principles of good town-making are probably as obscure as the religious ideas of the Toltecs.

America has now squandered its national wealth erecting a human habitat that, in all likelihood, will not be usable very much longer, and there are few unspoiled places left to retreat to in the nation's habitable reaches. Aside from its enormous social costs, which we have largely ignored, the whole system of suburban sprawl is too expensive to operate, too costly to maintain, and a threat to the ecology of living things. To lose it is tragic not because Americans will be deprived of such wonderful conveniences as K Marts and drive-in churches - we can get along happily without them - but because it was a foolish waste of resources in the first place, and it remains to be seen whether its components can be recycled, converted to other uses, or moved, or even whether the land beneath all the asphalt, concrete, and plastic, can be salvaged. In the meantime, Americans are doing almost nothing to prepare for the end of the romantic dream that was the American automobile age.

This is a good place to consider in some detail why the automobile suburb is such a terrible pattern for human ecology. In almost all communities designed since 1950, it is a practical impossibility to go about the ordinary business of living without a car. This at once disables children under the legal driving age, some elderly people, and those who cannot afford the several thousand dollars a year that it costs to keep a car, including monthly payments, insurance, gas, and repairs. This produces two separate classes of citizens: those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.

Children are certainly the biggest losers - though the suburbs have been touted endlessly as wonderful places for them to grow up. The elderly, at least, have seen something of the world, and know that there is more to it than a housing subdivision. Children are stuck in that one-dimensional world. When they venture beyond it in search of richer experience, they do so at some hazard. More usually, they must be driven about, which impairs their developing sense of personal sovereignty, and turns the parent - usually Mom - into a chauffeur.

The one place outside the subdivision where children are compelled to go is school. They take buses there - a public transit system that operates at huge expense, is restricted to children, and runs only twice a day. Even if children happen to live relatively close to school, there is good chance that it would not be safe for them to travel there on foot or by bicycle. This is because the detailing of the streets is so abysmal. By detailing, I mean all the big and little design considerations, including the basic dimensions, that make for good relationships between the things along the street, between the things that streets are supposed to connect, and between people's different uses, as, say, between motorists and pedestrians. For example: what are the building setbacks? Can cars legally park alongside the street? Will there be sidewalks, trees, benches where people can rest or simply enjoy the public realm? Will there be lighting, trash baskets, plantings, et cetera?

The suburban streets of almost all postwar housing developments were designed so that a car can comfortably maneuver at fifty miles per hour - no matter what the legal speed limit is. The width and curb ratios were set in stone by traffic engineers who wanted to create streets so ultrasafe (for motorists) that any moron could drive them without wrecking his car. This is a good example of the folly of professional overspecialization. The traffic engineer is not concerned about the pedestrians. His mission is to make sure that wheeled vehicles are happy. What he deems to be ultrasafe for drivers can be dangerous for pedestrians who share the street with cars. Anybody knows that a child of eight walking home from school at three o'clock in the afternoon uses a street differently than a forty-six-year-old carpet cleaner in a panel truck.

Most citizens do not drive as fast as the subdivision streets might physically permit, but some drive faster than the legal limit, say twenty five miles per hour. It is easy to do. The scale of the street is so immense that, at twenty five, a motorist hardly feels he is moving. Suburban streets commonly lack sidewalks. Each lot is so large perhaps 100 feet of frontage that installing a sidewalk would entail considerable expense for the homebuyer. Besides, it would be a contribution to the public realm, which has little value in our culture; the $3000 would be better spent on a vinyl swimming pool in the back yard, which is to say in the private realm. Moreover, jurisdictional disputes might arise over the future maintenance of the sidewalks: should the community pay for their upkeep? And how do we raise the taxes to do this? Instead of addressing these questions, suburbanites have taken the easy way out and decided that there will be no sidewalks, period. So, children walk or ride their bikes in the same space as an equal number of 4000 pound steel projectiles traveling in excess of twenty five miles per hour.

Suburban streets invariably debouch into collector roads - that is, two-lane or four-lane highways. Somewhere along the collector road is the place where a school is apt to be located. If the housing developments in the area have been in place for more than ten years, then it is likely that the collector roads will have accumulated a hodgepodge of businesses: little shopping plazas, convenience stores, muffler shops, plus a full complement of fast-food emporiums. The hamburger and pizza chain shops are magnets for children. So the kids are out on the collector road, having skipped the bus home in order to get some pizza.

Here there is no pretense of being in a place for pedestrians. The motorist is in sole possession of the road. No cars are parked along the edge of the road to act as a buffer because they would clutter up a lane that might otherwise be used by moving traffic, and anyway, each business has its own individual parking lagoon. Each lagoon has a curb cut, or two, which behaves in practice like an intersection, with cars entering and leaving at a right angle to the stream of traffic, greatly increasing the possibility of trouble. There are no sidewalks out here along the collector road for many of the same reasons as back in the housing development - too expensive, and who will maintain them - plus the assumption that nobody in their right mind would ever come here on foot.

Of course, one could scarcely conceive of an environment more hostile to pedestrians. It is a terrible place to be, offering no sensual or spiritual rewards. In fact, the overall ambience is one of assault on the senses. No one who could avoid it would want to be on foot on a typical collector road. Any adult between eighteen and sixty-five walking along one would instantly fall under suspicion of being less than a good citizen.

The two elements of the suburban pattern that cause the greatest problems are the extreme separation of uses and the vast distances between things. The idea behind the separation of uses had its origin in the nineteenth century, when industrial activity became an obnoxious nuisance to city dwellers. The first zoning codes explicitly sought to protect the property values of residential neighborhoods against such incursions. So industry was led off and given its own part of town in which to be dirty and noisy. With the advent of the car, shopping became a more or less mechanized activity - motor vehicles generated noise and fumes and cluttered up the street - so there began a trend to separate commerce from places of dwelling too. Today, of course, the idea has been carried to absurd extremes. This is why 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.

The ultimate way to protect property values under this regime is to zone wealthier neighborhoods against the incursion of those with less money who are apt to build less grand houses. So today it is common for zoning codes to dictate that houses in a given neighborhood must be single-family dwellings and no smaller than, say, 3000 square feet. Since such a house cannot be built for less than half a million dollars, the neighborhood will be restricted to only those persons in a high income bracket. Garage apartments, or any similar auxiliary use that would attract other kinds of people, are strictly forbidden. There is not even any place for the gardeners and housekeepers who work there to live which leads to the sort of obscene spectacle as the daily exodus of Mexican maids and yard workers out of Beverly Hills every day at five o'clock as they trudge down the canyon roads to the bus lines in Hollywood. This segregation by income group extends downward, with each group successively outlawing those in the groups below them, until we arrive at the level of public housing, which no suburban towns want to have within their limits, and which are therefore relegated to the decrepitating inner cities, where property values can't get any lower.

Today, we have achieved the goal of total separation of uses in the man-made landscape. The houses are all in their respective income pods, the shopping is miles away from the houses, and the schools are separate from both the shopping and the dwellings. Work takes place in the office park - the word park being a semantic gimmick to persuade zoning boards that a bunch of concrete and glass boxes set among parking lots amounts to a rewarding environment - and manufacturing takes place in the industrial park - ditto. This has some interesting, and rather grave, ramifications.

The amount of driving necessary to exist within this system is stupendous, and fantastically expensive. The time squandered by commuters is time that they cannot spend with their children, or going to the library, or playing the clarinet, or getting exercise, or doing anything else more spiritually nourishing than sitting alone in a steel compartment on Highway 101 with 40,000 other stalled commuters. Anybody who commutes an hour a day in each direction spends seven weeks of the year sitting in his car.

The costs of all this driving in terms of pollution, which includes everything from increased lung diseases all the way up to global warming, are beyond calculation. The cost to society in terms of money spent building and maintaining roads and paying for traffic police, courts, accidents, insurance, is also titanic. The least understood cost - although probably the most keenly felt - has been the sacrifice of a sense of place: the idea that people and things exist in some sort of continuity, that we belong to the world physically and chronologically, and that we know where we are.

The extreme separation and dispersion of components that use to add up to a compact town, where everything was within a ten minute walk, has left us with a public realm that is composed mainly of roads. And the only way to be in that public realm is to be in a car, often alone. The present arrangement has certainly done away with sacred places, places of casual public assembly, and places of repose. Otherwise, there remain only the shopping plazas, the supermarkets, and the malls. Now, American supermarkets are not designed to function like Parisian cafes. There is no seating, no table service. They do not encourage customers to linger. Yet some shoppers will spend as much time as their dignity affords haunting the supermarket aisles because it is practically the only place where they can be in the public realm and engage in some purposeful activity around other live human beings. Here they even stand the chance of running into someone they know. A suburbanite could stand on her front lawn for three hours on a weekday afternoon and never have a chance for a conversation.

This vacuum at the center of American life led to the phenomenon of shopping malls. Of course, the concept of a marketplace was hardly new, and large marketplaces under a roof have existed in history too. But the marketplace had always been a public space, part of the fabric of the town, usually at the heart of it, existing in continuity with the rest of town life. By the 1970s, when malls started to multiply across the land, the public realm had been pretty much eliminated from the American scene. Yet that hunger for public life remained. The mall commercialized the public realm, just as the insurance business commercialized fate. What had existed before in an organic state as Main Street, downtown shopping districts, town squares, hotel lobbies, public gardens, saloons, museums, churches, was now standardized, simplified, sanitized, packaged, and relocated on the suburban fringe in the form of a mall. Well, what was so bad about that?

Quite a number of things, actually. For one, the mall existed in isolation, connected to everything else only via the road, and the road was often the type of multilane highway that a pedestrian or bicycle rider might use only at peril - in short, you needed a car to get there. People without cars were just out of luck. It was ironic too, because one reason that people flock to malls was that, once inside, they didn't have to look at all the goddamn cars and be reminded of what a depressing environment they lived in.

For another thing, the mall wasn't really a public space. It was a private space masquerading as a public space. Sure, people were free to come and go (during shopping hours), and they were not charged an admission fee to enter, but in reality, they were the guests of the Acme Development Company, or whoever owned the mall. The developer was also entitled to control all the activities that went on inside the mall. This meant no free speech, no right of assembly. In a nation as politically complacent as the United States in the 1970s and '80s, this might seem trivial. But imagine if America got involved in another war as unpopular as Vietnam, and the political temperature rose. Or if our dependence on cheap oil started to cause political problems. Acme Development might not be so tolerant about political rallies held around their philodendron beds, or protest marchers interfering with sales at the Pet-O-Rama shop. Where, then, are you going to have your public assembly? On the median strip of Interstate 87?

Thirdly, the real Main Streets of America developed organically over time, and included both the new and the old, the high rent and low rent. Out at the mall, all rents were necessarily high because of the high cost of construction, maintenance, heat, and air conditioning. The only merchants who could afford such rents, it turned out, were the large chain-store operations - the Radio Shacks, the Gaps, the Footlockers - who had the financial muscle and the proven sales volume to enter into long - term leases. Invariably, these chain stores destroyed local businesses outside the mall, and in so doing they destroyed local economies. The chain stores' profits were funneled to corporate headquarters far away. The chains gave back nothing to the locality except a handful of low-wage service jobs. Since the people who worked in the mall stores were not the owners of the stores, they did not have a long term stake in their success or failure, and so they had limited incentives to provide good service.

It remains to be seen how the shopping malls of America might evolve over time. The conditions under which they flourished - cheap energy, cars for everyone, a credit driven consumer economy, special tax breaks for big real estate ventures - may be viewed as abnormal and transitory, a fragile equation that could fall apart like a house of cards if any of the factors changed - for example, if gasoline prices go up enough to erase the profit margins of mass retailers; or if citizens have to establish credit worthiness before banks issue them charge cards; or if more banks themselves fail. Only one thing is certain: The malls will not be new forever. And none of them were built for the ages.

The public realm suffered in another way with the rise of the automobile. Because the highways were gold plated with our national wealth, all other forms of public building were impoverished. This is the reason why every town hall built after 1950 is a concrete block shed full of cheap paneling and plastic furniture, why public schools look like overgrown gas stations, why courthouses, firehouses, halls of records, libraries, museums, post offices, and other civic monuments are indistinguishable from bottling plants and cold storage warehouses. The dogmas of Modernism only helped rationalize what the car economy demanded: bare bones buildings that served their basic functions without symbolically expressing any aspirations or civic virtues.

The Greek Revival merchants' exchanges and courthouses of the early 1800s symbolically expressed a hopeful view of democracy, a sense of pride and confidence in the future, and significant public expense went into that expression. Public buildings such as the Philadelphia water works or Jefferson's Virginia state capitol at Richmond were expected to endure for generations, perhaps centuries, as the Greek temples had endured since antiquity. These earlier American building types were set in a different landscape, characterized by respect for the human scale and a desire to embellish nature, not eradicate it. Try to imagine a building of any dignity surrounded by six acres of parked cars. The problems are obvious. Obvious solution: Build buildings without dignity.

This is precisely the outcome in ten thousand highway strips across the land: boulevards so horrible that every trace of human aspiration seems to have been expelled, except the impetus to sell. It has made commerce itself appear to be obscene. Traveling a commercial highway like Route 1 north of Boston, surrounded by other motorists, assaulted by a chaos of gigantic, lurid plastic signs, golden arches, red-and-white striped revolving chicken buckets, cinder-block carpet warehouses, discount marts, asphalt deserts, and a horizon slashed by utility poles, one can forget that commerce ever took place in dignified surroundings.

There is no shortage of apologists for the ubiquitous highway crud. The self-interest of its promoters in the highway, auto, and construction lobbies is obvious. Harder to understand are its boosters in academia - for instance, John Brinckerhoff Jackson. At Harvard, J. B. Jackson was credited with founding the field of landscape studies, as distinct from, say, geography or cultural anthropology or other ways of interpreting man's use of land. An eastern patrician by birth, Jackson spent much of his youth motorcycling around the West. Later, he lived for part of each year in New Mexico, where, except for the Indian pueblos, the towns were all brand-new and uninfected by the viruses of history.

Jackson was fascinated by the postwar commercial highway scene as a fabulous new phenomenon in the grand pageant of our national life. He loved the freedom of the strip, the energy and outlaw charm of it. He especially loved the task of trying to understand how it all worked, watching the cars cruise up and down, observing how parking lots were turned into flea markets on Sunday mornings, reveling in the vernacular ingenuity of the strip's denizens - for instance, the way they transformed bankrupt roller rinks into evangelical churches. "I find myself reconciled to a great deal of ugliness, a great deal of commonness," he told me, "and I don't object to it at all.

What J. B. Jackson appeared to lack, it turned out, were critical faculties. So caught up was he in the empirical dazzle of his observations that he seemed unable to make judgments about what he was observing. He was not interested in consequences, only manifestations. Jackson, in turn, deeply influenced Robert Venturi, whose explication of Las Vegas strip culture never questioned the strip's economic ramifications, or its consequences for the greater environment. Peirce Lewis of Penn State, another disciple of Jackson, and a shrewd analyst of the postwar landscape, was more frankly cognizant of its imperfections, but took the position that there was not much to be done about it. Lewis wrote:

“It is past time to remind ourselves . . . that whatever is done about the galactic metropolis, it is not going to go away. Planners may groan when they look out airplane windows and reach for the airsick bag, but Americans are not going to abandon those freeways, nor their ranch-houses on those cul-de-sacs in the woods. Nor will the old nucleated city be restored to its former eminence . . . “
“What shall be done about the new ubiquitous metropolis? The answer is simple to phrase but not so simple to execute. We must learn to live with it.”

Incredibly, Lewis wrote this in 1983, only a few years after the two oil shocks of the 1970s gave America a taste of what life will be like when the price and supply of petroleum begin to destabilize. And while he was at great pains to describe and categorize every last particular of the suburban landscape - he and Jackson share a passion for morphology - Lewis seemed unconcerned with whether or not it was a good way for human beings to live on planet Earth. Another failure of critical faculties.

The intellectual position of Jackson, Venturi, and Lewis vis-à-vis the American landscape illustrates how the discontinuities of our everyday surroundings are mirrored by the discontinuities of the university. Viewing a landscape full of totem objects designed to convince us that we live in a thing called a community - "colonial" houses, Red Barn hamburger joints - the academics declare that these objects may be minutely observed without considering their value in relation to other things - for instance, to some notion of what makes a community authentic or false, good or bad. Their position is an outgrowth of a technocratic view that believes only in measuring and quantifying. Perhaps those in the arts and humanities take refuge in this position out of a sense of inferiority toward those in the sciences. By turning the arts and humanities into pseudo-sciences, the ideas they contain assume a false empirical authority. And when the arts and humanities no longer deal with questions of value, of what constitutes a life worth living, they give up altogether the responsibility for making value judgments.

Thus, a Jacksonian student of landscape can observe a Red Barn hamburger joint, he can remark on its architectural resemblance to certain farm structures of the past, measure its dimensions, figure out the materials that went into building it, record the square footage of its parking lot, count the number of cars that come and go, the length of time that each customer lingers inside, the average sum spent on a meal, the temperature of the iceberg lettuce in its bin in the salad bar - all down to the last infinitesimal detail - and never arrive at the conclusion that the Red Barn is an ignoble piece of shit that degrades the community.

-Excerpt from “The Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler, Published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1993. Copyright 1993, James Howard Kunstler. All rights reserved by the publisher/author.

-excerpt ends-

Node still under development! First created: 01-17-2001, last edited: 01-17-2001

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From: James Kunstler (
Knock your self out quoting my book, with my permission.
The Good News is: the 20th Century is over.
We don't have to be Modern anymore.

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