Monday, June 30, 2014

The Geography of Nowhere

Here's a book I read that I'm not sure what to make of:  The Geography of Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler describes in great detail how we've built up our neighborhoods/cities/shopping areas with cars, not people, in mind.
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.
Kunstler is opinionated; you can tell with just about every paragraph -- actually, just about every sentence -- that he thinks urban & suburban planning has gone completely in a tragic direction.  He points out that we, the people who drive these cars and move through these areas, are conflicted about our automobile-ridden culture, but that a huge part of us prefers a pedestrian-dominated landscape:
For instance, there were quite a few art galleries in [the town of] Woodstock filled with paintings that in one way or another tried to depict small town and rural life.  Some of the paintings were very accomplished; some were amateurish.   Some obviously tried to capture a contemporary scene (often of rural desolation) in a contemporary way; others blatantly resorted to clichés (covered bridges in the snow, et cetera).  But they all had this in common: not one included an image of a car.
. . .  Yet the village of Woodstock was jam-packed with cars . . . Every half-million-dollar vacation home, ancient or modern, had three or four of them parked in the driveway, as did the few working farms that remained in the area.  It was much easier to spot a car in Vermont than a cow.
So, what's my problem with the book?  After all, I try hard to drive my car as little as possible, and I love my own largely pedestrian lifestyle.  But Kunstler is prone to hyperbole, exaggeration, and insult, and his presentation is so one-sided that he makes traffic engineers into almost Disney-esque villains, sneering bullies who promote evil for evil's sake.

The diatribe is also largely unrelieved by any reasonable action a reasonable person could take to remedy the situation.  Okay, I could sit around and complain about the way that neighborhoods are designed, but will complaining make the world any better?

At the same time, I was struck by the pictures he paints -- for example, by the car-less Woodstock pictures he describes.  Or by his eerily accurate forecasting of what I see when I tool around town, going yard saling on my bike.   Old neighborhoods with narrow streets and homes right up at the sidewalk have a vibrant community life, but in modern neighborhoods with wide streets and houses set far back from the street and far apart from each other . . . well, they're practically ghost towns except for the glow of the television sets.

The biggest irony of this for me is that the woman who described the book to me is a friend of mine with a severe, progressive, degenerative disease.  A few decades ago, she and her husband built their own log cabin; she put up drywall by herself at 7 months pregnant.  Now she's confined to a motorized wheel chair, slowly and irrevocably losing control over her whole body.  And so, in order to get out of her house into any kind of community, she relies on friend or family to pick her up from her far-away home, and drive her places, using (of course) a car.    In fact, my visit with her this past month made up the majority of my own car use in June, and I'm so glad I could have the chance to drive her around.


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