A Warning to Americans about Their Urban Planning

Article excerpt

JAMES KUNSTLER'S "The Geography of Nowhere" is a tirade against modern city planning and mass production in the style of Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" - caustic, strident, and thoroughly enjoyable. It is a chronicle of the destruction of America's natural and, in particular, manmade landscape and a partial prescription for its salvation.

We don't have to look far to see the proof of Kunstler's premise, whether it is the decline of inner-city neighborhoods, the clear-cutting of forests, or the uncontrolled sprawl of suburbia. This book recounts the history and nature of American capitalism, political policy, and real estate development as it has affected the natural and urban landscape. Its premise is that Americans have created an inhumane, energy dependent, and unsustainable environment.

One of the most interesting chapters of this book concerns the use of the planning grid to lay out Manhattan's streets and avenues and property lines on the Midwestern prairie. The planning grid's great benefit has been to logically set out regular boundaries for the ownership and development of private property. The grid's great detriment is its uniformity, for it reduces the city to a series of equivalent and indistinguishable parcels. Where the grid is spread over the prairie, it pays no attention to hills and streams while it gives rise to towns and settlements that look strangely dislocated.

Planning a city with a grid is the opposite of historic town evolution, whereby accommodation to the natural features of an area gives a city a distinct character and results in a harmonious coexistence with the landscape. The examples of this include many cities and towns of great beauty, such as Rome with its seven hills, the medieval hill towns of Tuscany, or the cascading white Moorish villages of the Spanish hillsides. But the grid ignores the individual character of landscape and cultures.

The great demon of Kunstler's book is the American automobile industry as it conspires, in his view, with the political and economic establishment to eliminate mass transit and encourage the growth of the automobile-bound suburb. The history of this development is a fascinating story, and its consequences are the real drama of the book. Kunstler contends that the expense of the automobile culture in terms of machinery, infrastructure, and fuel is too great for a world of diminishing resources. …