books design

Home from Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler

In 1994 published his diatribe against suburbia, The Geography of Nowhere. (It was required reading on my cultural studies degree) He was a novelist and journalist and not an expert in architecture or planning, but he struck a chord. Plenty of people were aghast at the physical transformation the car had wrought on the American landscape. The book didn’t offer many solutions, so Kunstler went away and looked some up, visited a bunch of them, and talked to some of the leading lights of new urbanism. Home from Nowhere is the result – a book all about fixing suburbia.

All across the US, development has been patterned around traffic. Roads are wide, buildings are set back from them with parking lots in the middle. Zoning laws keep residential areas and commercial districts separate.  Density guidelines leave big gaps between buildings. Rental housing, multi-occupancy housing and larger houses are all built independently.

All of this affects the way that people live in those places. You have to drive, as walking is impossible even where there is a sidewalk. Nobody hangs out of the street and there are no useful public spaces, so there is no sense of community or place. Because richer families live in entirely separate districts to single people or poorer families, people never interact with other sectors of society. Main streets wither as shoppers drive out to out-of-town malls. Democracy, community, culture and the environment all suffer, and people live in soulless “places not worth caring about”.

It doesn’t have to be like that of course. Despite the name ‘new urbanism’, there’s nothing new about livable towns. That’s how they used to be built and the movement might have fewer opponents if it was called ‘old urbanism’. Mixed use developments, intersecting streets, shops with apartments above them, garages in alleys to keep cars from dominating residential streets, on-street parking to create a buffer between pedestrians and the road and avoid large parking lots, these are all hallmarks of some of America’s most treasured small towns. “The pattern that the New Urbanism models is not the urban slum, but the traditional American town. This is not a pattern of life that should frighten reasonable people. Millions pays forty dollars a day to walk through a grossly oversimplified version of it at Disney World.”

There are techniques for building good towns, and Home from Nowhere has lots of line drawings showing ideal road widths, building heights, walkable neighbourhoods. Kunstler argues with surprising passion that vertical windows are more dignified than horizontal ones. Architecture matters as much as planning. Ugly buildings devalue public space, because they don’t care about those outside them. They are selfish, only serving the occupants. Good architecture recognises that buildings shape the neighbourhood.

Behind all of this are more philosophical questions. We will build things that serve our vision of a good life. If we have a consumerist, individualist notion of personal success, then plastic McMansions is what will get built. Good towns need a deeper understanding of what makes life worth living, development that values society, culture and beauty. Kunstler insists that these are moral questions and can’t be ignored, whatever the planning department might say.

And therein lies a tale or two. Much of the book is given over to real world examples of developers trying to do something different. Many of their projects stall simply because local zoning laws make it illegal to build in a sustainable fashion. Mixed use neighbourhoods are forbidden. If you can get round the zoning laws, there are local residents who see all development as hostile, even though a well planned development can re-invigorate a town. Fortunately, there are success stories too, and there are plenty of great projects and inspirational people. The book was written in 1996, and an updated version would have many more to choose from.

Britain has less space than the US and our land use policies never got so extreme, but we still have a sprawl problem. This is a book that raises a host of important questions about why we build what we build, and it does so with eloquence, humour, anger and hope.

9 comments

  1. Somehow I missed out on the part that mixed use neighborhoods are forbidden in the US. But also apparently not everywhere – there was plenty of mixed use in Hawaii, when I lived there, and to my knowledge that didn’t change. It all felt very European. And the mentioned Disney world does feel like that proverbial Disney version of a continental European small town during market day. There also is urban sprawl and the big city slum problems strike all big cities as well – be it Paris, Rome, Madrid or Berlin, and all the others. But they are much less pronounced in the smaller “big cities”, where urban sprawl often looks more like small villages and towns “budding off” from the big cities, with their own shopping streets, market squares and social life. In most cases a city quarter is a mini version of the big city itself – a bit like a fractal. All in all the classical American town pretty much was the same as the contemporary European town – only with more space. A big difference is that almost all currently existing European towns already were in place when the car appeared. Not so in America.

    1. Zoning laws are drawn up town by town, so some are healthier than others. The impression I got from Kunstler is that they are put together bit by bit over years, with no strategy or vision for development. In some cases there was only one copy, because new pages had been printed out and stuck in. I hope that’s changed since the early nineties too.

  2. Though it may be unnecessary, may I add to Stefan’s last line – So, the car in America then became the latest IDOL for lives to be built around. Could we ever learn to overcome the root cause of our issues or simply just how to deal with the latest one?

  3. Further to my earlier comment regarding ‘the root cause’, Herman Daly in The Daly News from the CASSE web-site says: ‘The wishful thought leading to such unfounded growth expectatons was the belief that by growth we would cure poverty without the need to share.’

  4. Good summary indeed Jeremy. Much of it eloquently shows the fallacies for what they are. There are many aware of it and many looking for ways to survive it but few looking at underlying causes. That’s why I was pleased to see the need to share voiced. He calls it the wishful thought leading to the belief, though I expect it has always been a guise to help provide a longer leash for the blind who lead the blind – those who want to keep ‘the prevailing standard model of growth’ to keep exchanging our natural resources mainly for filling their wallets. This comment of his begs the very question – ‘so why then did we ever bother to accumulate capital in the first place if nature already endowed us with a near perfect substitute?’ It also has connection to a comment I made a long time ago to you about the issue that money may have given many poor areas benefits such as medicines but we’ve also forced them into slums and shanty towns. A good trade-off? Of course not. Riches made out of our earth are not for the benefit of the poor, just as the native Americans said so long ago. So, can Steady State Economy help or will it ultimately just be more ‘Animal Farm’? Does human nature change?

  5. Now there’s a question for the philosophers. As a christian I believe human nature can change, but that we can’t change ourselves. We don’t have to cave in to either though, and I think that’s the biggest flaw in our current system. We’ve convinced ourselves that if we all act selfishly, an ‘invisible hand’ will make sure everything ends up fair. Strangely religious/magical language, in fact.

  6. Now Jeremy, In reply, I must quote from a book which I read about 30 years ago – It’s from Michael Laver’s, The Politics of Private Desires and the back cover says ‘Then the central political paradox is considered; If a group of people behave as to do the very best for themselves individually, then they will produce a state of affairs which is worse for each of them.’ I utterly hold this to be true and only dream of living in a world that can see and abide with it. Is there a place called Heaven? I WOULD LIKE EVERY PERSON ON EARTH TO HEAR THOSE WORDS AND TO UNDERSTAND THEM – NOT ASKING FOR MUCH AM I!!!

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