The Geography of Nowhere

coverThe Geography of Nowhere (The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape), by James Howard Kunstler

I am a city planning geek. When I was first working on virtual worlds stuff in the mid-90s, I started reading it for work and I got hooked: Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Robert Venturi, Lewis Mumford and all their kin. James Howard Kunstler is a well-known author as well, but I’d bought this book a decade ago and didn’t get around to reading it until now.

This book has some good information in it: how America became car obsessed and how poor planning lead to the decline of the small town and the rise of suburban sprawl. Some of this was quite interesting, but this kind of information is covered in every book on the topic.

Once the background is established, however, all the author does is complain about it. The book left me feeling a little flat. There were no solid prescriptions for change, or even a reasonable set of tentative next steps. Rather, there was a liturgy of how ugly the American landscape has become and a wagging finger directed at city planners nationwide.

I think that this book wasn’t meant for me. I already curse suburban sprawl, car culture, strip malls and house facades whose most prominent feature is the garage door. I think that this book was meant for the indifferent Americans, who mostly haven’t thought that much about it. This would be a great book if you were looking for a primer on some of these issues. The writing style is very accessible and the book is an easy read (which is more than can be said for many urban planning books).

It does feel a bit dated at times, but what is striking (especially for a resident of one of the country’s fastest growing cities) is how so little has changed since the author wrote it. The strip malls and seas of parking lots continue to be the most dominant feature around the ever increasing subdivisions of identical homes with two car garages facing the street and no sidewalks. If you are a resident of a town being destroyed like this, a case of these books would be a great gift for your mayor and city council.

Overall, it is a worthy read. If you are interested in the subject already, you won’t learn much new, but you won’t feel like your time was wasted. If you haven’t already read much in the area, you’ll learn a lot and you’ll find the writing makes the subject easy to approach.

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