The Geography of Nowhere

Seminal. I think that’s the only appropriate away to describe James Howard Kunstler’s 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. Would it be too much to call it one of the most influential book on urban form since The Death and Life of Great American Cities? I don’t think so. This passage is the essence of the livable streets movement:

[The perfect modern suburban street] is at least thirty-six feet wide… with generous turning radii. This makes it easy to drive well in excess of thirty miles an hour, a speed at which fatal accidents begin to happen. The perfect modern suburban street has no trees planted along the edge that might pose a hazard to the motorist incapable of keeping his Buick within the thirty-six-foot-wide street. The street does not terminate in any fixed objective that might be pleasant to look at or offer a visual sense of destination – no statues, fountains, or groves of trees. Such decorative focal points might invite automotive catastrophe, not to mention the inconvenience of driving around them. With no trees arching over the excessively wide streets, and no focal points to direct the eye, and cars whizzing by at potentially lethal speeds, the modern suburban street is a bleak, inhospitable, and hazardous environment for the pedestrian.

The Geography of Nowhere is probably Kunstler’s finest work. Easy to read, humorous, and passionate about the development of American cities and towns, the book connects with readers on human terms. The esoteric practices of engineering, economics, and planning are stripped of their technical facade and discussed in terms of how ordinary people experience them: how we get around, what we do, what our communities look like.

I just reread The Geography of Nowhere on the 20th anniversary of its publication, and more or less 10 years since I first read it. The book provides an excellent overview of the history of architecture, city development, and city reform movements in the US, which is worth reading on its own terms. However, for my purposes here, I’m going to focus on two specific chapters of the book and some overarching themes: the three places discussed in the chapter on capitals of unreality, the three cities Kunstler contrasts against one another, and what I see as the three central themes of the book.

Three Capitals of Unreality

Atlantic City: casinos are, with the exception of Wall Street, perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the long-running get rich quick streak in American culture. Atlantic City today is as Kunstler described it twenty years ago, but even more so. The strip of mega casinos on the beach, flanked on one side by a depressing string of Cash 4 Gold type establishments and the storm-ravaged boardwalk on the other, would seem bleak to many observers.

Without passing judgment on vice and economics, to me Atlantic City demonstrates the dangers of having all your economic eggs in one basket – be it the summer tourists of the 1920s or the casinos of the 1970s. Atlantic City suffers both because it is difficult to displace the alpha city of a particular type of economic agglomeration (in this case, the casinos and resorts of Las Vegas) and because the removal of regulatory barriers in other cities has saturated the market for gambling.

Disneyland: since this was always intended to be a fantasy, I have trouble seeing it as an unrealistic city model. Unlike Kunstler, I do not believe you can make a direct connection between visitors’ fondness for Main Street USA and a desire to live in such a place. I like camping in the middle of nowhere for vacations, but it doesn’t mean I want to be a subsistence hunter/gatherer. I have little to say about Disneyland except that, given Kunstler views it as a capital of unreality, it should be more troubling that many people who claim to love real cities want to model their transit systems after Disneyland.

Woodstock: this is the most interesting and relevant of Kunstler’s capitals of unreality, because unlike Atlantic City and Disneyland, Woodstock has a history as a real town, not a resort. Kunstler provides nice detail of this history, of Woodstock’s transition from rough frontier town to mill town of regional importance to weekend escape for wealthy New Yorkers. (Vermont in microcosm, right?) The key insight Kunstler provides here is that Woodstock looks like a functioning town  but is in fact something else entirely. In the twenty years since his writing, this type of economic arrangement has proliferated, and the concept of a “Woodstock” is one I intend to use in the future.

Three Cities

Detroit: has any other American city faced the same disastrous level of misfortune, social unrest, and incompetence (public and private)? Kunstler describes the inner neighborhoods of Detroit as nearly abandoned, beyond what could even be called a slum, and the city economy as failing… in 1993! Like Atlantic City, this has only grown more true with time. The only economic activity that seems to be prospering in the Detroit of 2013 is the dismantling of the city itself through scrapping, with an occasionally self-righteous dash of creative class development downtown. Right on cue, as I was working on this post, the city declared bankruptcy.

Detroit demonstrates that even an alpha city can be brought to its knees. The city was heavily dependent on the auto industry and related enterprises, which have been lost to southern states that offer lower wages and Asian corporations that make better products. Given the immense problems Detroit faces, I’m not sure to what extent I’d accept Kunstler’s theories on the impact of the city’s auto-oriented development and monolithic residential neighborhoods. They may not have helped, but Detroit seems to be the victim of both its own internal failings and larger economic forces.

Portland: here, I think Kunstler is half-right. In the last twenty years, Portland has demonstrated that it is possible to build a modern American city without doing everything in sprawl mode. There have been growing pains, but the city continues to succeed economically. However, with housing becoming less affordable in Portland, the ability of a planned city like Portland to grow fast enough to allow all people to reap the benefits is an open question. The only American cities producing housing fast enough to stay affordable are the ones still doing what most people would consider sprawl – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, the far fringes of Los Angeles.

There is also the issue that, as time goes by, Portland seems to put an increasing amount of emphasis on urban form, without regard for any sacrifices towards building a functional city. In other words, Portland runs the risk of becoming a Woodstock. Thus you have streetcars that run on 19 minute headways, and Fred Armisen spoofing the city as the place that people in their thirties go to retire. Top-down heavy-handed control over urban form also leads to self-selection of people who like that form, causing a positive feedback loop of what Jane Jacobs called the self-destruction of diversity. It drives other people to leave the city and compare it to Orange County – without a hint of irony, and perhaps unaware that Orange County is far more diverse than Portland.

Los Angeles: ah, and that provides a nice segue to talk about Kunstler’s third city, for which this blog is an unabashed promoter. Los Angeles is so iconic as “nowhere” that the four-level interchange appears on the cover of the book. Well, the results of the last twenty years are in, and Los Angeles wins. The city has been tested on virtually all of Kunstler’s substantive points and it keeps passing the test. Real gas prices have doubled, and it was not a disaster for Los Angeles – probably because we don’t actually drive as much as anyone thinks. Downtown LA is one of the hottest neighborhoods around. Our economy keeps bouncing back, despite the losses of many defense industry and manufacturing jobs. The ports continue to hold prominence, not because of any federal subsidies but because LA is the only west coast port with snow-free rail and highway connections to the rest of the country and a vast, flat hinterland where you can do all sorts of cool stuff like sorting rail cars and transloading. LA County has the nation’s most ambitious transit plans. And AQMD has managed to clean up the air without taking anyone’s hibachi. LA 1, James Howard Kunstler 0.

At the end of his section on LA, Kunstler declares that LA has always been an experiment, and that if it survives, it will be in a form we do not recognize. I am curious to know what he thinks today – has the day of reckoning not yet come, or is LA transitioning to a new form? But either way, LA already had an urban form that few recognize, and I think Kunstler failed to understand it when he wrote the book. It’s hard to make accurate assessments of a region’s future if you don’t realize how it works today.

Three Themes, Intertwined

As I read it, three main themes keep coming up in The Geography of Nowhere: (1) the economics of cities and towns, that is, their ability to generate prosperity and the degree of economic self-sufficiency, (2) the form of cities towns, such as the arrangement of land uses, particularly concerning the accommodation of cars and impacts on pedestrians, and (3) the architecture of individual buildings.

I’ve listed these themes in increasing order of subjectivity. The economic success or failure of a city is fairly quantifiable, and there is not much disagreement about what constitutes success or failure. The form of a city is somewhat subjective; different people have different preferences, but from a detached perspective, some forms make more efficient use of resources. Architecture, so long as it does not impact the ability of the building to function as intended, is entirely subjective.

In the Kunstlerian world, these themes are heavily intertwined – in fact, inseparable. The architecture of individual buildings, their relation to the public realm, and their arrangement in the city are not simply matters of taste. In the Kunstler View, it is impossible to have a truly successful economy if the city’s architecture and urban form are wrong. Likewise, getting the architecture and urban form right contributes to the prosperity of the city. This latter corollary view seems to be widely prevalent in the urban commentary of today.

Subjectivity Matters

The problem with the Kunstler View is the subjectivity of urban form and architecture. If you do not like the urban form and architecture of Los Angeles, you are forced to conclude that the city cannot generate prosperity. This results in the need to insist that Los Angeles has “fake” prosperity, that it depends on the largesse of government projects, or cheap oil, or whatever.

If you look outside the US experience, something Americans should do more often, the connection between urban form, architecture, and economics is even more tenuous. At the time of this writing, southern Europe is full of beautiful, walkable cities whose buildings are in proportion to the street and respect the public realm, and whose residents enjoy 26% unemployment. On the other side of the globe, China is getting less walkable, more auto-oriented, more architecturally insane – and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

But even if you restrict your view to the US, just think about what has happened in the last 60 years. All the urban design features now considered to be essential to city success? Back then they were thought to be the things dooming cities to obsolescence. And the things now supposedly dooming suburbs were thought to be essential! Shouldn’t it at least give us a little pause that the ingredients for economic success happen to coincide with the architectural and urban planning fads of the day?

Building a successful economy is hard. Predicting the future is hard. Combine the two and you’re bound to run into trouble. And even if you do everything right, you can still have bad luck! If your region is struggling, you probably face a very complex, and somewhat unique, set of problems. If your region is successful, stay out of the damn way and don’t screw things up. Either way, don’t expect architectural style or the relation of a building to the street to make that much difference. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to urban quality of life – we should! – but the justification is found elsewhere.

Home from Nowhere

For Kunstler, the result of his bias towards the architecture and urban form of the late 1800s and early 1900s results in an affinity for the economic arrangements of the same period.

Ultimately, therefore, the conflation of economics, urban form, and architecture is the book’s shortfall. Even twenty years after its publication, The Geography of Nowhere is informative and insightful. The three capitals of unreality and three cities that Kunstler discusses remain important archetypes of urban form and development in the US – perhaps even more so than when the book was written. There are excellent lessons in improving the public realm. But on economics, it borders on being a rant against production at industrial scales, and Kunstler’s recommendations must be analyzed in the context of his view that America will regress to the turn-of-the-century economy. As is usually the case, the instructions cannot be considered without also considering the instructor.

7 thoughts on “The Geography of Nowhere

  1. Pingback: Forget About Boston vs Atlanta | Let's Go LA

  2. jwyattacupuncture

    Thank you for the link to my blog post, “Leaving Portlandia” in your commentary above. In response to the question of whether there is a hint of irony behind my comparisons of Portland and Orange County, or my possible ignorance of the level of “diversity” in Orange County, I would like to clarify. Having grown up in Orange County and lived for 22 years “behind the Orange Curtain”, I am aware of the ethnic diversity of Orange County and am also making the comparison to Portland without irony. As stated in my piece, the key aspect of this comparison is the culture of conformity:
    “Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that there is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others. There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development…And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.”
    Statistics may tell you that not all of Orange County fits this view, although the rise of gated communities filled with tract housing is indicative of both this social culture and an increasingly built environment that reinforces it. What I find most interesting is that I have this view of Orange County without having grown up in one of these exclusive communities. Growing up in “old” Orange County and going to schools that were between 30 – 60% Latino did not change my feeling that Orange County is heavily steeped in a culture based on inclusion driven by conformity to an ideal. And I find this very intriguing…that we can look at statistics on topics like age, wealth, ethnicity and density, and the use of words like “liberal” and “conservative” and “progressive” and still potentially not really know what a city is about or what drives its culture.
    I have found this comparison to be very thought provoking in readers and appreciate the comments that it has generated. In particular, people seem to have difficulty wrapping their minds around the view that Portland is extremely “liberal” (socially and politically) and yet may not be tolerant. My use of the comparison was to encourage an alternative view of Portland that involves narrowly tailored ideals, an increasing culture of conformity (aesthetic, social, political), and the attitude that it is better to have a few ideas that you believe strongly, than a multitude of ideas that you have to evaluate on an ongoing basis. And to offer the challenge that Portland is becoming an increasingly “conservative” city, just with a different focus on what ideals that conservatism is defined by that you would typically expect.
    I would agree that, “Top-down heavy-handed control over urban form also leads to self-selection of people who like that form, causing a positive feedback loop of what Jane Jacobs called the self-destruction of diversity”, although I think that influence is working bi-directionally in Portland (such as in investment in bike infrastructure). I would also note any claims to success of Portland’s urban growth boundary in preventing sprawl in Portland misses the point that all of the cities around Portland are built on the sprawl model (Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tigard, Tualatin, Gresham). Not only do these cities have less expensive housing, but they are also home to some of the major employers in the region, such as Intel and Nike. Your observations that Portland will have challenges sustaining their long term growth are astute and accurate. Although as long as people want to live the “Portlandia” dream, there appears to be no shortage of people moving to the area despite exorbitant housing and minimal job opportunities.
    Thank you for the opportunity to comment and again for reading my blog and thinking it worthy to note.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to my post! As you say, it is interesting that we can look at those statistics and not really know the culture of a city. I grew up in Massachusetts, which is also frequently called one of the most liberal or progressive places in the country. And yet, it is quite conservative and conformist in its own way too – though in ways different than a place like Portland or Orange County. Demographics and voting trends suggest that before long, Orange County will flip and vote Democratic instead of Republican, but as you point out, those labels do little to really describe the place.

  3. Amanda

    In my personal opinion, I find your analysis on LA extremely biased. You say that Kunster “failed to understand” LA’s urban form, but you are only writing that because southern California is your home and you obviously love it. I think everything that you and Kunstler said negatively towards Portland is wrong, because I live there, and yes, I love it, but it isn’t fair of me to say that you’re wrong because I recognize that Portland has flaws. I am in no way intending to disrespect you or LA, I love LA too, but when speaking on this topic, it it important to recognize flaws, instead of bashing every other city mentioned and only praising LA, because it is in no way perfect. No place is. I enjoy your blog, but please remember to be fair and stick to what the author says.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I admit that I am biased towards southern California, and our region is certainly not without its flaws. However, Kunstler’s interpretation of LA as one of America’s most car-dependent cities is factually wrong, since households in LA use less gasoline every year than any other American city besides New York. So, I think LA’s future is much brighter than JHK expects.

      In case the post wasn’t clear, Kunstler is a fan of the way Portland does things. I’ve used Portland as an example in several blog posts, but I honestly do not mean to be beating up on Portland. However, the Portland model is widely talked about when it comes to city planning, so I think we have to bring it up. More than anything, my goal here is to get people to think about their goals for their city, in the context of my goals for LA. If people in Portland like the way things are going there, that’s great – more power to them. But, good plans must be rooted in a solid understanding of what it means to be Portland, what it means to be LA, what it means to be whatever city you are today.

  4. calwatch

    No, people should beat up on Portland, and do so regularly. Its lack of diversity, coming from someone who grew up and lived in California most of their life, is breathtaking – I don’t usually feel uncomfortable as a minority but I did in Portland when I lived there for two summers. Portland is also pretty fake, which is saying a lot coming from LA. If you want a Northwest city, Seattle is better by far.

  5. Pingback: What Defines LA? | Let's Go LA

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