The American Dream of Nowhere

    Photo by roadsidepictures

    As I embarked on my journey the other day to a planning conference, I carried a dog-eared copy of James Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere in my bag. This book caused quite a stir when it came out back in the 1990s. With humor but also anger, Kunstler attacked the way America has developed since the Second World War, with its over-engineered roads and neighborhoods and downtowns built to be hostile to pedestrians, or any sort of civic life.

    But Kunstler went even further back in time. He pointed to mistakes made almost from the time the first white settlers came ashore in the 1600s. Except in early New England, where the Puritans insisted on keeping congregants living within a short distance of the church, immigrants tended to sprawl in farms and communities far apart from one another. As the country got organized, government set down roads and property lines in a manner that, at least according to Kunstler, discouraged the development of communities. He wrote that the grid, the straight-line layout of most towns, made it almost impossible to identify civic centers, public open spaces, or other focal points where people tend to gather. As a result, the theory concludes, in many towns today there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, except drive too fast and drink heavily.

    That book may have done more than any other to set the tone for many planning conferences, where I always find multiple workshops on the importance of building right up to the street (rather than putting parking between them), and the need for focal points. There are also always workshops about how to make your community “cool,” which usually means lots of coffee shops. (I’m still unclear on how many coffee shops are necessary before everyone in your community is rich and healthy.)

    According to about 10 million articles I have recently read on planning Web sites, demographic changes as well as changing tastes are leading to a shift toward urban living, and away from suburban sprawl. But what about places where these dramatic changes are not apparent yet? In the community I live in, a lot of people really like parking in front of buildings, not behind them. They don’t patronize coffee shops constantly. Are they misguided in their attitudes and choices, or are we planners not offering enough options as to how to develop?

    On the micro level, I find myself looking for some sort of compromise, like a row of parking in front of shops, rather than none. I’m not sure that this one row of parking will destroy the potential for sidewalk life in a town center. On a more macro level, I ask whether, if a lot of people still want to live out in the boonies and drive everywhere, why do we keep insisting they’re wrong? Maybe the early settlers knew what they were doing, and didn’t fear the social and economic inefficiencies of sprawl. And maybe today’s sprawlers are still trying to live the true American dream.

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