Geography of Nowhere is a wonderful, life-changing book. I wish I could make every developer, every SUV owner and every town council read this book. Its main topic is the physical environments that Americans live in, in contrast to our historical environments and to overseas. Kunstler shows how the advent of the automobile has changed the face of cities, small-towns and birthed the suburb. The choice to live without an automobile is now a very difficult one for most people, and also comes with certain social assumptions. Yet, after reading Geography of Nowhere, I am seeking ever more ways to take public transportation and reduce my reliance on a vehicle that both pollutes the natural environment and despoils the man-made environment.
Some chapters in the book focus on cities gone wrong, such as Detroit. Others discuss the ideal community, involving mixed-use neighborhoods (both purpose - commercial, residential, industrial - and class - working, professional, wealthy). Kunstler makes the case that prior to the development of suburbia and the reign of automobiles as our primary form of transportation, we had a kinder, cleaner, and happier world. Disney World's Main Street was used as an example of how car-free neighborhoods have become an American dream, and at the same time, few people understand why cars have had such a negative effect.
Geography of Nowhere has confirmed my choice to live in a city with public transportation, in a mixed-use neighborhood, within walking distance of most of my needs. It may be more expensive and it may be unconventional, but I now have the evidence to back up my convictions.
on January 21, 2005
Kunstler is not too happy with how we've built our cities, our suburbs, and our society. And I can't blame him.
This is an important consideration of how the landscapes of America have changed, and not for the best. The decline of American cities, the rise of the never-ending suburban sprawls, the addiction to cars and to oil and highways, all contribute to the decay of social fabric.
It all sounds deep, but Kunstler is clearly onto something. Himself transplanted to the suburbs of Long Island, Kuntsler is angry at what he sees as an America that is less and less concerned with maintaining any lasting community, anywhere.
All you have to do in this country is go to a few different cities and look around. First off, you can hardly distinguish most big cities from each other in the US--you have a downtown (in some cases among the worst part of a particular city, and often deserted and bland) and you have the endless suburban sprawl. What you find is isolation, isolation, isolation. Pick a big city, and you see the problems still being faced decades after population shifts, demographic changes, cultural changes etc: Detroit, Atlanta, St Louis, Miami, etc, etc.
Architecture is in the dumps, as short-term profit is the motivating factor behind flat, faceless and featureless buildings. Suburbia has long been the answer for many: miles of designed streets with identical houses, cut off from undesirables by miles of highway, encouraging an inefficient life where everything is separated, the car has replaced the PERSON as the unit we build for, to say nothing of the cultural wasteland half of America becomes with the influx of 100 fast food chains, a Walmart, a mall, an 'entertainment complex', etc, destroying anything that once gave a place character.
The notion of public space is different in America than elsewhere. Here, we don't seem to think much of it. While it may enrage some folks to compare ourselves to Europe and its cities, Kunstler points out that European cities are built to last, so to speak. Public space is respected and cherished, cities are built around people and for people, and so what if you don't have a Chili's, an Outback Steakhouse, a Radioshack, a Best Buy, a Wal Mart, etc, etc everywhere.
Even in New York you see the chains have moved in to stay, the blandness extends to every facet of life. At least you can walk out the buildings here and walk on a street and see people, unless of course, you don't want to see anyone except those who are exactly like you.
Important stuff, and God-forbid, thought-provoking.
on April 7, 1999
This book is a treat. It's one of those books that helps give you words for what you've always felt, but haven't articulated. Kunstler approaches the topic of why America is so GoshDarn ugly from many different perspectives. The parts of the book that focus on the histories of human habitats are not as thigh-slappinlgly funny as the parts in which he describes (with a dead-on accuracy that might make you cry) our own late-twentieth century American (ridiculous) landscape, but are compelling nonetheless for the sheer volume of information. Certain passages in the book are so elegantly written you will read them out loud to friends. Others are so funny you will laugh to yourself. Read this book with a pen to underline all the good stuff. It will no doubt change your perspective.
on March 19, 1997
I am so glad I read this book. Kunstler has identified and explained why strip malls, cars, and vast paved areas can never compete with more traditional (i.e., high density) town design. Why are Paris and San Francisco, or even the traditional American small town, so much more appealing and human than where you live now? Because they are designed for people, based on well-understood, time-tested principles, instead of being designed for cars! This book explains things that have been nagging at us for years but have been hard to quantify or nail down
on February 21, 2005
I grew up on Long Island in a cookie-cutter, cape cod house on a cul-de-sac. It was the very model of Levittown, the first notable post WWll plan that gave shape to what we now call the suburbs. For a child of the 60's, the surroundings were quaint enough but I was drawn to the older town nearby with uniformed, tree-lined blocks and beautiful homes each different from one another and with much more character. It also had in retrospect that special something that my neighborhood curiously lacked- a downtown.
As the 70's and 80's passed I knew something was wrong with this man-made canvas. Cape cods (which had their charms) gave way to split level houses where the garages became center stage (as well as all the junk for every neighbor to see), while strip malls, shopping malls, and non-descript office buildings sprouted up on a seemingly vanishing terrain of greenery with all the architectual style of a soviet ruled country. It seemed as if my once idyllic memories had been taken over my mind-numb robots building things for other mind-numb robots. How did this happen and why?
James Howard Kunstler's THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE answered these questions and more. It chronicles the rise and fall of the post World War ll american landscape with insight nicked with shazor sharp cuts and "laugh-out-loud" funny barbs. While there have been famous criticism of the urban planning in relation to european models, Kunstler's style is laced with brilliant pop cultural references that wonderfully illustrate what any humble citizen has sensed for decades (in fact, the author had me hooked from the beginning recalling a scene from the movie WHO FRAMMED ROGER RABBIT). For me, it was personally liberating to know that I was not alone in lamenting the homogenized blandness of my surroundings and Kunstler's book proves to be a reliable friend and resourse against what has now been popularized as "suburban sprawl."
on November 11, 2005
I purchased this book after reading Kunstler's most recent book, The Long Emergency. I found the author had much to say though at times his stridency and passion may have clouded his message somewhat. But hey, if we are talking about the end of society as we have known it for the last one hundred years perhaps a little passion can't hurt. I was moved enough however, to purchase his earlier book (1994), The Geography of Nowhere.
In the ten years that Kunstler wrote Nowhere, things seem to have gotten even worse. Make no mistake about it folks. Kunstler passionately believes that the automobile is the root of all evil. Who can blame him? If anything our roads are more clogged then ever. Three car garages in McMansions on two-acre lots now seem to be the norm. Mega-mega-malls are becoming the norm rather than the exception. The Mall of America, in Minnesota, has parking for 12,000 cars!
Kunstler effectively makes the point that we can not go on like this. Our car-centered culture is sapping our collective strength, replacing our will to resist what we intuitively feel to be bad for us with a blind unthinking acceptance of mediocrity. In essence, we have moved from communities with soul and meaning to well, the geography of nowhere, where disconnectedness and distance between people and spaces are the norm rather than the exception. Nowhere addresses issues of the mind and heart. The Long Emergency addresses the economic and social impact of the decline of oil production on an energy-cheap fuel junkie society. Taken together, these two books stand as a stunning indictment of our culture.
on July 5, 1997
Starting from the first colonial settlements continuing to the present day,
Kunstler examines the evolution of the built environment of the United
States with a critical and satirical eye that rings convincingly true.
At once stimulated by the industrial revolution, and
advanced further by the proliferation of the private automobile, Kunstler
charts the degradation of the human qualities of American
cities and towns--resulting in the "generica" so prevalent in urban America
today: endless tract home developments, strip mall madness, faceless and
soulless architecture, and decaying inner cities juxtaposed with burgeoning
suburbia. Kunstler's analysis goes beyond the mere aesthetic, exposing
the profound social and economic ramifications of a "throwaway society"
that, giving no thought to creating places worth living in, has created a
land of "unplaces"--a "geography of nowhere". A sobering read that is destined to inspire Americans to rethink and reshape their communities for a more sustainable and aesthetically satisfying future.
on September 13, 1999
If you grew up in a suburban tract house, you may have hated it. I know *I* did. I wasn't sure why, I just knew that something was *wrong*, something was *missing*. This was truly one of the most important books I have read (and I read *a lot*) because it provided immediate insight into what really *is* all wrong with those tract houses and the "neighborhoods" where they stand. Granted, some may criticize Kunstler because he is not an architect or city planner. On the other hand, his outsider status gives him the insight to proclaim "The Emperor has no clothes!"
on June 10, 2012
I've noticed that criticisms of this book are often based on nit-picking this-or-that reference the author makes to one-or-another of the luminaries of urban planning. These critiques are leveled (probably) by urban planning graduate students who are (probably) pissed that a non-urban-planning professional has trumped their desire to affect thinking on the issues.
But even if the author flubbed every single reference... and somehow never "really" understood what someone meant by some academic comment 50 years ago, it hardly matters. This book is a tour-de-force of clear headed reasoning that synthesizes history, sociology, philosophy, law, psychology, etc... to draw a portrait of the nature of the "nowhere-ness" of 20th century suburban development. It is EXACTLY the kind of summation that only a writer from outside the academy could accomplish. The author takes the radical approach of not only considering a wide array of variables, but of drawing a new conclusion from them. It is a brilliant move.
The biggest conceptual challenge in this book is the concept of NOWHERE. The concept NOWHERE has to do with the where-ness of place being related to it's relations to other things. If it has no relation to other things then it is not really a place at all. It is simply a geographical location. In other words... PLACE is not the same as LOCATION. Place implies meaning... and meanings (in anything) can only be understood in relations between one thing and another. Locations with no relations are meaningless.. and therefore are not places at all.
After 100 years of suburban development, we have covered the country with endless nowheres. We have an DE-URBANIZED population that relies on the automobile to shuttle themselves everywhere they have to go. This SUB-URBAN population now dominates the economy and culture of America... to the point where you can say IT IS THE ECONOMY, and thus IT IS THE CULTURE.
The author surveys several major problems with this.
First... it is totally dependent on cheap foreign oil and gas. The development of the suburbs presupposed abundant and cheap gas to fuel cars. The problem with this presumption should be self evident.
Second... it is a consumptive model of existence to doesn't scale up very well. It relies on an endless stream of housing starts and new cars being manufactured. Obviously, this can't go on forever... or... if it did, it would result in the entire country being over run by housing projects. This has obvious ecological and cultural implications.
Third... the cultural logic of suburban domination creates a pervasive division between where people live, and what they DO. People live FAR from where they work... where they play... where their children go to school... where they shop... and so on. This division traces it's roots back to attempts to protect real estate values from the effects of urban squalor. Such a desire has both financial and elitist aspects. The rich insulate themselves from the middle class, the middle class from the poor. Within each of these broad groups, housing exists in income-dependent enclaves that seek to keep the "other" out. This logic ends up extending to schools, work, shopping, recreation... etc. The USES are separated from LIVING areas. The only way to reconcile them is to DRIVE to them in an AUTOMOBILE using GASLOLINE on a PUBLIC ROAD.
Fourth... The evolution of the atomic family living in discontinuous neighborhoods with no local economies or public aspects nearby is a HUGE psychological aspect of the decline of citizenry and civic mindedness. The Late 20th century attitude is to be left alone. So much of this corrosive outcome is unfortunately underwritten by American psychology, with it's desire for total freedom and liberty to do anything one wants, with no concern for how individual behavior affects the environment in which we all live. The suburbs are a now-classic case-in-point... where the desires of 10,000 home buyers who want their own slice of the American dream underwrite the development of thousands of acres of land into a homogenous collection of ugly, formless housing units sold by developers. Discontinuous communities of strangers whose only sense of reality (in the end) comes out of the television.
Fifth... the destruction of community.
This is the authors really big point. It is a common malaise today, the idea that there is no more community. But community comes from environment... and what goes on in the environment. If the environments we inhabit are discontinuous spaces that people drift in and out of on their way to somewhere else, than there can be no community that isn't transient. Transient community is what we have... but that is the kind of community that doesn't feel quite right. It is the kind of community you get at work, or in school... or anywhere you inhabit for some meaningful purpose... but whose time span is ultimately limited and transitional at best.
To have DEEP community, you need for places people live have to be united with what they do. The whole collection of living and USES of space must be combined into an economy... and only out of economy can community arise. Clearly this is not where culture is today.
on June 18, 2002
James Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" is both an explaination of how we got to the Superhighway/Suburbia landscape and of how we might escape it.
Kunslter is at his best when he describes how two different government decisions helped us arrive at where we are at today. First the investment in the system of highways helped spur the demand for cars within American families. Every family could now move around at an accelerated pace. Secondly the system of loans for family homes helped encourage the creation of suburbs ringing once prosperous and lively cities.
Both disasters such as Syracuse, NY and successes like Portland, OR are described. Kunslter's example of Paris with its broad boulevards and open cafes gives a great contrast with the San Diego freeway and downtown office culture in the US.
Intelligently written and often opinionated, its book to be recommended and one that's had a fair amount of influence since its publication.