I finally got around to reading James Howard Kunstler’s book, The Geography of Nowhere. It is a smart, funny, and a sobering indictment of the horrible way we have been building our country over the last 60 years. It is an old but important book, published back in 1995, it is probably more relevant now than it was back then. It should be required high school reading. Too many Americans take sprawl style development for granted. Three generations of Americans have been raised in sprawl environments and know of no other way. Our laws, culture, and economy have worked hand in hand to create a system of building a physical environment which is wasteful, unsustainable, alienating, and destructive to the environment and society.
The book is a fast paced easy read that traces the history of our built environment from the earliest settlers of the rugged costal colonies to the present day. It gives a vivid frightening view of where we are and how we got here. Kunstler’s basic thesis is that we have shifted from a community-based society which cherished the public realm to one which is self centered and privacy based. Where once we prized community, we now fear and shun it. Now the private sanctum is king and that means there is no reason to invest in community. This is clearly evident in the ugly banality of the typical sprawl environment.
The space between home and the daily destinations is no longer important so we no longer invest in making it beautiful. Once you leave your garage in your motorized privacy capsule you hope to God that you can get a parking space as close to the door of your destination as possible so as not have to deal with anything beyond your own narrow mission. To support sprawl we have subjugated everything to the car and the ability to move it through space as fast as possible. Sprawl may seem like a natural way of doing things to brainwashed Americans but the fact is we cannot continue indefinitely to use up the countryside, filling it up with cheap ugly trash. I challenge BRO’s pro sprawl crowd to read this book and then let me know how sprawl is benefitting us as a nation. Anyone ready to take me up on this challenge yet?
You can hear Kunstler on the web every week at the kunstlercast. New episodes are posted on Thursdays. He has several other books and novels which also play off the this topic and provide his view of what we could be in for if we do not wake up and address the problem of sprawl. You can also see Kunstler in person in Buffalo. He will be the keynote speaker at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference which will be in Buffalo this October (more info).