“The culture of good place-making…is a body of knowledge and acquired skills.  It is not bred in the bone, and if it is not transmitted from one generation to the next, it is lost.”

A thank you to Professor Mark Schimmenti for introducing this book to me during the Market Square Design Studio in ’99. This book has been very important to me and my career.

The Geography of Nowhere was published originally in 1993. However the contents are just as, if not more so, applicable today and yet also as foreboding (if we don’t make large scale mprovements).

Kunstler begins by writing about a temporary move to the suburbs of Long Island during his childhood. He exploits the irony of the situation in which builders were rapidly bulldozing hundreds of acres for new places with names like North’wood’ and ‘Country’ Estates. This experience helped him to recognize and identify some of the great placemaking elements of other towns and cities in which he lived.

As he moves through 200 years of American settlement patterns and a surge of individualism, with no shortage of detail, we see how the elements that make a community great have been obliterated and even often made illegal.

Following a chapter on architectural history, is the chapter aptly named ‘Joyride’. Kunstler explains that we were blissfully unaware of the long-term influence the automobile would have on shaping our communities and our lives. We quickly grew to love the freedom attainable with the auto. “There was nothing like it before in history; a machine that promised liberation from the daily bondage of place.”

Though he explains that the larger cost may have been “the degradation of urban life caused by enticing the middle class to make their homes outside of town.” Because the automobile became available to the masses, we began to build further and further from the urban core. In addition, there was the emergence of mass home production when American GIs returned home from WWII. Easy mortgages were available with VA and FHA appropriations. These elements spurred a housing industry that “had learned the mass-production techniques of Ford and General Motors.”

What makes the automobile suburb so bad? “In almost all communities designed since 1950, it is a practical impossibility to go about the ordinary business of living without a car.” So it’s rather ironic that we would later use our automobiles to escape the places that we built. And where do we go to escape? Often it’s to the places in which we can’t afford to reside. These are some of the great cities built well before World War II where you may find great streets, walkability, public amenities, and mixed uses. There’s a real correlation between the price of real estate and these elements.

As automobile ownership and dependency increased, mass transit systems went into decline due in large part due to pressure from automakers. “The automobile, a private mode of transport, was heavily subsidized with tax dollars early on, while the nation’s streetcar systems, a public mode of transport, had to operate as private companies, received no public funds, and were saddled with onerous regulations that made their survival economically implausible.”

Kunstler uses his own town of Saratoga Springs, New York, as a case study for ‘How to Mess Up a Town’. Within this, he uses “X and Y Corporations” to represent out-of-town developers of national retailers. He explains that they usually care little or none at all about constructing or preserving a physical relationship with the existing environment and its architectural history. Using the example of a convenience store, he states,

“The officers of the X and Y Corporations,who do not live in x (town), have no vested interest in the upkeep of the 100-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what the town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off their shelves.”

Their presence also eliminates many local operations owned by individuals who in general do care about the upkeep of the town.

The book ends on a more encouraging tone with ‘Better Places’ in which Kunstler summarizes that “…the living arrangement that most Americans think of as ‘normal’ is bankrupting us both personally and at every level of government.” Far too much of our wealth goes to building and upkeeping roads and highways and infrastructure. In this chapter, he profiles organizations, writers, and designers that are working to take us back to better placemaking policies and guidelines.

It is possible to change. It is possible to have better places that accommodate the automobile and consume less of our resources. We’ve seen these charming places before. He says there are basic rules to follow that involve respecting the presence of humans, and paying attention to the details.

The sequel to this book is Home From Nowhere.

Author: Tory