Wednesday, September 12

Book: Home From Nowhere

By James Howard Kunstler. Home from Nowhere: Remaking our Everyday World for the 21st Century is a continuation of his ground-breaking attack on American suburbs, Geography of Nowhere. It's intended to add some constructive hope to his previous scathing critique. I like how Eric Jacobsen describes Kunstler. He's the "raving prophet of the New Urbanist movement." The fact that he is an unaffiliated writer, without any clients or voters to appease, gives him the flexibility to made audacious pronouncements. A true voice in the wilderness.

Summary: America has become a "theme park" nation. Instead of creating worthwhile places in which to live, we have opted to use our wealth to paint a superficial veneer in order to mask our unhappiness. Because our cities were associated with the dirty industrial revolution and undesirable people, Americans sought to escape from this reality either to a prototypical "little cabin in the woods" or to an "English manor." We have given up on the common good, and its physical manifestation in the public realm. We no longer think of ourselves as citizens but as consumers.

The automobile was expected to usher in an era of freedom, but really it enslaved us to itself. Car ownership is required for first-class citizenship, and the poor, children, elderly, and disabled are automatically dependent. Technological progress does not always live up to its expectations. Often spiritual and social costs, which cannot be quantified, are ignored. Some states are starting to reform their transportation policies.

We yearn for an organic connectivity with the world and a chronological connectivity to our tradition. The suburbs mimic, but inevitably destroy, these desires. Moral and aesthetic relativism, popular with intellectuals in the 60's, has effectively relegated all decisions to mass-market consumption. Age-old principles for human-scale architecture are replaced by analytical modernist theory. Vibrant neighborhoods are cut up by single-use zoning. Family life is diminished by being isolated from the wider community.

There is a way out. Communities should have diverse uses mingled together, manage growth carefully, build a consensus on principles for civic art, provide a seamless interaction between public and private space, increase density and affordability, simplify laws, and take tradition seriously. Sooner or later, economic forces will mandate many aspects of this organization anyway.

These changes are happening in some places. Seaside, in Florida, has become a model, although it is a decidedly resort community. DPZ and other architectural firms are building New Urbanist communities throughout the country, and they are finding them to be financially successful. Unfortunately, many of these projects are greenfield developments, built from scratch, but that is only because the status quo in existing urban areas is protected by impenetrable bureaucracies and resident NIMBYs (not in my backyard). Hopefully, local governments can be reformed.

Livable communities can range in size from Saratoga Springs to Manhattan. The revival of our traditional urban areas can provide a model for our future urban development.

Engagement: This book can certainly feel fragmented and a touch hyperbolic, but in my opinion, that only contributes to its rhetorical power. Kunstler considers himself a "prose artist." He is not writing a step-by-step architectural manual, but rather painting a broad picture intended to evoke a sense of disgust for what we have made and hope for what is possible. Trying to categorize him into our neat Left and Right camps is a maddening exercise (believe me, I tried). He is at once a self-sufficient populist railing against government regulations, and a visionary seeking to reinforce the common good. Sometimes in the same page!

I think his vision is the right one, even if it may take folks with a more pragmatic inclination to actually get us there.

1 comment:

J.W. said...

Wow, I should get my hands on this. The Geography of Nowhere had a huge influence on me.