The geography of nowhere

The following remarks are excerpted from a speech, "A Crisis in Landscape and Townscape," by James Howard Kunstler, critic of urban sprawl and author of the acclaimed book, The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler spoke at Cleveland State University in June 1994. EcoCity Cleveland co-sponsored his visit.


Walt Disney had America's number. Walt Disney was so optimistic about the way things were going in post-war America that his attitudes about the past and the future were equally sentimental. It was possible for him to believe that an organization like his own, operating freely in a free country, could only bring wonderful benefits to a free people. So, the underlying message of Disney's Main Street USA was that a big corporation could make a better Main Street than a bunch of rubes in a real small town. And Walt was right!

Through the post-war decades, Americans happily allowed their towns to be dismantled and destroyed. They'd flock to Disneyland and walk down Main Street and think, 'gee, it feels good here.' Then they'd go back home and tear down half the old buildings downtown, so they could have more parking lots, and they'd throw a parade to celebrate the new K-Mart openingeven when it put ten local merchants out of businessand they'd turn Elm Street into a six-lane expressway, and outlaw corner grocery stores in the residential neighborhoods because they caused "traffic problems," and they'd build all the new schools three miles out of town so the kids couldn't walk or bike therethey'd do every fool thing possible to destroy good existing relationships between things in their towns, and put their local economies at the mercy of distant corporations whose officers didn't care whether these towns lived or died. And then, when vacation time rolled around, they'd flock to Disneyland to feel good about America.

I just wrote a book called The Geography of Nowhere, about the mess we have made out of our everyday environment here in America. The public discussion of this issue has been nearly non-existent. We apparently don't understand, for instance, that there's a connection between our economic predicament and the physical arrangement of life in this country. Yet I believe when you scratch just below the surface, Americans keenly sense that something is wrong with the places where we live and work and go about our daily business. We hear this unhappiness expressed in phrases like "the loss of community" or "no sense of place."

We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce, and we wince at the fantastic, awesome, overwhelming, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sightthe fry pits, the Big Box stores, the office units, the lube-joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive-plastic townhouse clusters, the uproar of signs, the highway itself clogged with carsas though the whole thing had been designed by some diabolical force bent on making human beings miserable. And naturally, this experience can make you feel kind of glum about the nature and future of our civilization.

Somethough certainly not allof these terrible things were designed by architects, and many of the other common features of our everyday environments were designed by their brethren in related design fields like landscaping and traffic engineering, and administered by creatures called planners. What's out there is not out there by accident. We created Nowhere by a definite set of rules, and if we're going to fix this mess, and take ourselves from nowhere to someplace, we'll have to re-examine and change these rules.

So, we drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk we've scattered across the landscape and our response is, in some form or other, 'Yuk.' I believe that the ugliness we see is the mere surface expression of a whole range of deeper problems; problems that go to the issue of our national character. The highway strip is not just a sequence of eyesores. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, environmentally calamitous, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading. And all this is what we sense when we look at it and go 'Yuk.'

We built a nation of scary places and became a nation of scary people.

In our manner of building since the end of World War II, we have managed to fill our land with things that are unworthy of our affection, and these add up to thousands of places that are not worth caring about. In the process of filling our landscape with these loveless and unlovable structures, we have thrown our civic life into the garbage can. And as a final consequence of all this, we are putting ourselves out of business as a civilization.



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In our manner of building since the end of World War II, we have managed to fill our land with things that are unworthy of our affection, and these add up to thousands of places that are not worth caring about. In the process of filling our landscape with these loveless and unlovable structures, we have thrown our civic life into the garbage can.

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