This book is likely to draw strong reactions: it’s passionately written, strongly worded, and discusses a controversial subject. I think, however, that it’s also valuable, even though it’s getting a bit old (published in 1993 by James Howard Kunstler).
This book is more or less in two parts: the first is a brief history of the United States, told through the lens of urban (and suburban) development. The second part contains several case studies of various US cities as examples of how urban expansion has failed or succeeded.
As I said, the author is passionate, which is both a strength and a weakness in this book. Obviously he believes very, very strongly in his subject. This passion, however, makes the book a bad read for someone who doesn’t already agree with his main premises. The caustic tone would be off-putting to a casual reader, I imagine, which is a shame because Kunstler does a great job of illustrating why suburbia, sprawl, and urban decay are bad for our country’s economy, community, and psychology.
The main argument in this book can be summarized as follows: by allowing the automobile to dominate American interests in every single part of our lives, we have sacrificed a true and sustainable economy, community, and environment. According to this book, even environmentalists/preservationists need to first focus on ridding ourselves of our dependence on the car. From this, all things will follow.
Kunstler makes a pretty convincing argument, with lots of examples to back up this basic premise. In one of his stronger chapters, he compares the cities of Detroit, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, to illustrate different attitudes toward car travel and urban development. He paints Detroit as a dead city, one which the economy based on the automobile completely destroyed, and which hasn’t been revived (note that this book is nearly 20 years old, though). Portland is a fascinating example of a city that, in the 1970s, was taken over by environmentalist back-to-the-landers, who managed to press through zoning laws that would require certain kinds of building in the city center, while restricting certain building practices in the suburbs. This led to the current state of Portland, which is well-known as a vibrant, walkable city. Los Angeles was left as a question mark, as a city that had been built for the car, but would soon find itself teetering on the brink of collapse because of the inevitable shortage of fuel in the future.
Another great chapter compared various American vacation spots: Colonial Williamsburg, Disney Land/World, and an antique/boutique tourist town in Vermont. Kunstler attributes the enduring attraction of these places (and, in Vermont’s case, this type of place) to the fact that none of them have cars and are, in fact, constructed specifically for pedestrians. When he tried to ask visitors what they liked about these places, however, he couldn’t get them to identify exactly why they enjoyed those places. The best they could do was answer that they were peaceful.
Kunstler believes that Americans’ have become so inured to the presence of cars that we simply can’t imagine life without them, not even a little bit. It’s so extreme that we don’t notice their presence, or even their absence, as illustrated in the informal experiment described above.
I enjoyed this book, though I did shake my head a few times at the combative tone. I liked having someone give a voice to my feelings of distaste for driving and cars. I never could come up with exactly what I dislike so much about driving, and I could never decide what it is about living in this city that turns me off so strongly.
But thanks to Kunstler, I now have some concrete reasons why living in a city designed for cars is unpleasant, and why I find the suburbs unsettling and ugly. As he says, some people in this country spend their whole lives feeling vaguely unsettled, vaguely unsatisfied about their physical surroundings, but never actually learn what that feeling is.
Since I’m not an architect or a landscape designer, I never had concrete reasons for why I feel uncomfortable, unsafe, unsettled, or generally displeased with car-centric cities. At least now I know what it is, and it’s not just me.
Recommended if you already think that suburban expansion is ugly, that car-centric life is unsustainable, or, if you disagree with those points, recommended if you like high blood pressure.
I'd love to read a follow-up of his case studies, or simply a new edition of this book. I would love to know how the future of landscape has changed, if it has, in the 18 years since it was published.