In 1994 James Howard Kunstler 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.