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Geography Of Nowhere Explains Why It's So Hard To Walk To The Grocery Store

This article first appeared in issue 15, and was written by Pen Waggener.

Book Review: The Geography of Nowhere

by James Howard Kunstler

0-671-70774=4, 1993, 303 pp

If you've ever wondered why it's so hard to walk to the grocery nowadays, or why sidewalks are no longer a critical part of city planning, you should check out James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere.

In The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler traces the development of our modern "car culture" to the birth of the suburbs as a pastoral escape from the tenements and factories of early 20th century cities. The dawn of the industrial age brought about many smelly, noisy factories, often built in the heart of the city. Small suburban communities-serviced primarily by the train-were green and quiet escapes from the dirty and overcrowded cities. Roads in these communities were narrow, and mostly served to get people and goods to and from the railroad station on the edge of town.

To illustrate how different things are now, Kunstler asks us to imagine if we had to run train tracks to every single building in town, and to imagine storing railroads cars in front of all the houses in town. We've done just that with our cars.

Two major government policies helped bring about our dependence on cars.

During the troubled economy of the Great Depression, the government sought to spur economic growth by investing in new highways, which created immediate jobs during their construction, and also provided a secondary economic boost by promoting the sale of new cars. However, this investment essentially subsidized the auto industry at the expense of the railroads and other public transportation. We can see the results today-cars are everywhere, but travel by train is almost unthinkable, and other public transportation systems are expensive by comparison and plagued with problems.

Kunstler points to another government action that he feels has been detrimental to our cultural landscape: guaranteed loans for new homes. Again, these loans spurred the economy, increasing the demand for new home construction, with resulting construction jobs and demands for raw materials. However, such programs subsidized new building at the expense of existing homes and buildings. With no money to repair and upgrade older homes, downtowns struggled to survive. At the same time, more and more people moved to artificially-inexpensive new homes on the outskirts of town.

The combination of new roads, new cars and new home construction led to an increasing dependence on automobiles.

New developments often ignore other modes of transportation to provide for the safe movement of cars. In fact, modern roads are designed primarily for the safety and comfort of high-speed motor traffic. Pedestrian traffic is considered a nuisance and danger to the safe and efficient movement of cars.

Kunstler contrasts our system with that of Paris, France.

"Observe how the Parisian boulevard behaves. In the center of the boulevard are several express lanes for fast-moving traffic. At each side of the express lane is a median island planted with trees. These medians define an outer slow lane on each side of the boulevard for drivers looking for a local address. There is space for parking along both sides of each median island and along the sidewalk. Finally, the outer edges of the sidewalks are planted with formal, orderly rows of trees. In other words, you have a twelve-lane road in which half the lanes are used for parking and the rest for moving cars at two different speeds, express and local."

"Thus, the boulevard is part of the urban fabric of the city. It celebrates the idea of the city as a place with value, a place where a human being would WANT to be, not just a one-dimensional office slum to be fled after the hours of work. It defines space in a way that allows for multiple functions: motoring, strolling, shopping, business, apartment living, repose.

The subtleties of its design make all the difference. It can accommodate twenty parked cars for every fifty linear feet of boulevard, eliminating the need for parking lots. The cars parked along these edges serve another crucial function: they act as a buffer-both physically and psychologically-between the human activities on the sidewalk and the hurtling cars in the express lanes. The two rows of trees per side (four in all) provide additional cushioning. This system works so well that Parisian boulevards are typically lined with outdoor cafes, full of people relaxing in comfort and security. Imagine sitting at a little round table in the breakdown lane of the Santa Monica Freeway at 5:30 in the afternoon."

Kunstler also considers modern commercial development to be unimaginative and unfriendly to pedestrian traffic. Modern shopping centers and restaurants are designed only to move cars full of people in and out as quickly as possible. As a result, these buildings are set away from the road, to provide plenty of room for parking.

This is quite unlike the downtowns of old, which were designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, Downtown construction usually proceeded right up to the sidewalk, providing a sense of security and visual appeal unknown in modern design.

At times, Kunstler over-romanticizes previous eras, and his arguments mainly "preach to the choir."

They are unlikely to sway any hard-line developers, and our economy may be too dependent on automobiles to turn back now. However, if you consider yourself part of the "choir" he's preaching to, Kunstler's book provides excellent insight into the history of our current cultural landscape.

This story was posted on 1997-07-30 12:01:01
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