The geography of nowhere

James Howard Kunstler struck a nerve. In 1993, surveying the American landscape of sprawling suburbs, wasted inner cities, ever-widening highways and paved-over commercial strips, he wrote The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (Simon & Schuster) — a searing, often hilarious indictment of the terrible things we’ve done to American towns and cities in the years since World War II. “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last 50 years,” he wrote, “and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” Five years later, sprawl was on the covers of news magazines and at the top of the national political agenda.

Kunstler followed up that book with Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster, 1996), which suggested ways that we might return to the lost art of building coherent, functional and sustainable towns and cities. Both books continue to be popular both with the general public and as texts for university courses on town planning, architecture and political science.

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, Kunstler will be in Asheville to speak at the Diana Wortham Theatre, as part of a forum sponsored by City Seeds, a local nonprofit. The all-day program, titled “New Urbanism and Developing Patterns for People,” will consider how communities can combat the negative consequences of sprawl by adopting sustainable patterns of development. During the first week of September, I interviewed Kunstler via e-mail and discovered that his views on the current state of our built environment and the future of our towns and cities are as lively and provocative as ever.

Mountain Xpress: You had already written eight novels before you turned to nonfiction and wrote The Geography of Nowhere, an outraged, insightful survey of America’s sprawling suburbs and centerless edge cities. What sparked your interest in this topic?

James Howard Kunstler: Ever since I worked as a young newspaper reporter, it was evident to me to me that we were creating a national automobile slum. I had a lot of freedom in my early newspaper jobs. I was a columnist at age 27 and could write about anything I wanted. The suburbanization of American life struck me as deeply ominous, and I began to study it and write about it. In the eight novels I published later, there are a lot of riffs about the ridiculous everyday environment we’ve made for ourselves. It seemed to me as a young man, and still does as a 50-year-old, that these issues of how we actually live in America are absolutely central to the question of whether we will be able to carry on a meaningful culture.

MX: You refer to this environment as “nowhere” in both The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. What do you mean by that, and where exactly is this non-place?

JHK: I’m generally referring to American suburbia. It is a place of no memorable character or quality. I would also define it as a place of no past and no future, that is, a place without memory or hope. It produces depression, anxiety and a profound sense of purposelessness. American-style suburbia began in the mid-19th century in the form of the railroad suburb, as an attempt to provide an antidote to the unpleasantness of the industrial city. Specifically, it was supposed to be a form of country living in a country villa. Over the last 150 years, it has mutated into the mature automobile suburb of our time, in all its ghastliness. It is now a ridiculous cartoon of country living.

As a technical matter, the fiasco of suburbia is characterized by the luxuriousness of its private realm and the impoverishment of its public realm.

MX: Now that the “industry” in urban areas is much more likely to be a graphic-design firm, advertising agency or Internet start-up than a factory or textile mill, do you think there will be a decline in the desirability of suburbia? The developers seem to keep building it, and the real-estate companies keep saying it’s what people want.

JHK:I don’t expect our living arrangements in America to remain the same under any conditions. Every cue in our environment is telling us to re-condense American life into coherent places that are built to the human scale and rewarding to the human spirit. It seems to me that the extraordinary economic conditions of our time and place have allowed our activities to evolve [amid] overblown economies of scale. Everything — from national-chain retail, to suburban house-building, to the extreme centralization of schools — will have to change in the years ahead. One problematic aspect of this is that we have invested huge amounts of our national wealth in the infrastructure for things like the Wal-Mart chain of stores, the millions of cul-de-sac houses, and the hundreds of gigantic high schools of the western suburbs. In any case, it is not plausible to me that the future will be “just like the past, only more so.” Developers, builders, bankers and planners may wish to continue doing the same old thing, but whether circumstances permit it is something else.

MX: In the past couple of years, it seems that everyone has suddenly become concerned about sprawl, and that cities and states are starting to respond by encouraging higher-density development, mixed-use neighborhoods, and transportation options other than endless road building. Do you see this as a promising long-term trend?

JHK: My general sense is that it is too little, too late. The National Automobile Slum and all its accessories represent a titanic mis-investment of our national wealth, and we are now stuck with an inventory of physical structures that will be impossible to maintain and may be of little utility in the future. For instance, the traffic engineers are well aware of the fact that it will eventually cost far more to overhaul and repair the entire interstate highway system than it originally cost to build [it]. The asteroid belts of suburban tract developments and highway commerce that surround every town in America, big and small, are disintegrating as we speak. I get calls every week from reporters around the country who want to know what happens to dead shopping malls. All of these things are symptomatic of the same predicament: our overinvestment in complexity, resulting in steeply diminishing returns.

Personally, I believe it will take a severe economic and/or political shock to the United States for us to really, seriously change our behavior and the value system that supports our behavior. I believe this shock is coming soon — and, not-so-ironically, it will be a consequence of our foolish mis-investments in malls, theme parks and drive-thru fry-pits.

The current bubble economy — based on the reckless expansion of the money supply by the Fed and the consequent, exorbitant inflation of credit (along with their corollary effects of inflating the equity markets and spurring an orgy of consumption — on credit) — is going to result in a financial bloodbath for the United States, and probably the rest of the world.

My sense now, in early September of ’99, is that our financial implosion will be accompanied by a currency crisis. Prepare for austerity: Y2K will be the cherry on top. If nothing else, I expect that the Y2K computer problem will disrupt international oil production and oil markets. This, in itself could cripple the U.S. economy — dependent, as it is, not only on cheap oil, but on absolutely predictable supplies of cheap oil arriving right on schedule.

One of the chief consequences of all this, I believe, will be a stunning loss of value in suburban property of all types: residential, commercial, office. The one positive outcome of this scenario is that, further on, existing towns and cities may increase in value as the suburbs become increasingly devalued and life in them becomes untenable.

The various government policy initiatives sometimes lumped together as “smart growth” represent the dim recognition that something has gone terribly wrong in our culture. But, as I’ve experienced them, these initiatives fall far short of really challenging the status quo. They are engineered to be political palliatives. We are sleepwalking into the 21st century.

MX: Fifty years of suburbanization and highway building have created an American landscape that is radically different from what it was at the end of World War II. Care to venture a guess as to what America will look like in another 50 years? What kind of places do you think we’ll be living in?

JHK: If we’re lucky, the events of the early 21st century will prompt us to reduce the economies of scale of our day-to-day activities — commerce, schooling, agriculture, etc — and re-condense American life into coherent towns within rational regional economies. The world of suburban sprawl is itself a gigantic symptom of multiple dis-economies [on] a gross scale. It has been supported primarily by cheap oil. As the cheap-oil era ends, our ability to sustain massive dis-economies will also end.

In the current situation, we are tyrannized by the need for ceaseless, mandatory travel between places that are hardly worth being in or … caring about. If we are fortunate, the future will be about living and working in places that are worth caring about, with less compulsive travel between them. This suggests that we will have the chance to create beautiful, spiritually rewarding places out of towns and cities that had been abused and neglected through the whole 20th century.

Of course, there are alternate scenarios, in case we are not so lucky: political breakdown, ruin, loss of culture, chaos. We could enter a dark age.

MX: Here in Buncombe County, we’re in the midst of a great debate over whether to zone the entire county. As you’ve traveled around the country and seen various land-use plans (or lack of plans) in action, you must have formed a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t. What are the pros and cons of zoning?

JHK: As a general thing, I would only advise you not to assume that the next 25 years are going to be anything like the past 25 years. Most zoning is based on the idea that we will continue an automobile-dependent, suburban-sprawl economy. Hence, most of the rules anticipate more of what we’ve already got — strip malls, housing pods, etc. — and try to accommodate them.

My sense is that the decades ahead will be so different that the common zoning schemes of today will be irrelevant.

If we are wise, we would base any civic design codes on the fundamental principles of the street-and-block plan, and on building typologies — applied to particular places (streets, districts, neighborhoods) case by case. This is the only system that makes sense over time. It is somewhat technical, but seems more complicated than it is, because we haven’t been using it for 50 years. It is the antithesis of single-use zoning, which currently reigns.

James Howard Kunstler will be one of several speakers at a conference on “New Urbanism and Developing Patterns for People,” organized by City Seeds. The conference, which is part of a series entitled “Urban Ecology,” will take place at Diana Wortham Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kunstler will speak at 10:30 a.m. Conference tickets cost $35 ($15 for students). For conference info, contact City Seeds at 236-2299, or e-mail them at CitySeeds@main.nc.us. Ticket info is also availabe from the Diana Wortham Theatre (457-4500).

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