COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

James Howard Kunstler

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

James Howard Kunstler is a novelist and journalist who condemns the car-dependent suburbanization of America while exploring alternative forms of urban development. Kunstler uses pointed and personal polemic to call attention to the decay of America's cities and places, tallying up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that the country is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle.

Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (1994) served as a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, and to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. In it, he proposes that by reviving art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good. "The future will require us to build better places," Kunstler says, "or the future will belong to other people in other societies."


Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He moved to the Long Island suburbs in 1954, and in 1957 he returned to the city where he spent most of his childhood. He graduated from the State University of New York's Brockport campus, worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he turned to writing books on a full-time basis.

In 1994 Kunstler published The Geography of Nowhere, a landmark book that traced America's evolution from a nation of coherent communities to a wasteland of placeless architecture and parking lots. He wrote the book, Kunstler says, because, "I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work."

He continues these discussions in the 1998 book, Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century, though he places more emphasis on possible solutions -- a portion of the text appeared as the cover story of The Atlantic in September 1996. In 2002 Kunstler published The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition -- an inquiry into what makes cities great (or miserable), focusing in particular on what the United States is going to do with its decaying urban landscape.

Along with twelve novels, Kunstler's recent nonfiction publications include The Long Emergency (2005), and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (2013). Kunstler is a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Op-Ed page, where he has written on environmental and economic issues. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, RPI, the University of Virginia, and many other colleges, and he has appeared before professional organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler decries America's transformation from a nation of vital places and communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular - a "tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside." He argues that the supremacy of property ownership, the onslaught of the automobile, and the lifelessness of modernist architecture have caused many of our society's troubles, and that citizens need to reinvent the places where they live and work to build communities that reinvigorate civic life.

National Automobile Slum. The author worries that the nation is turning into an automobile slum -- a car-dominated landscape that is "economically catastrophic, socially toxic, ecologically suicidal, and spiritually degrading to a degree where not only is nothing sacred but everything is profane." In this national automobile slum, parking lots are the same in Beverly Hills, New Jersey, the South Bronx, and everywhere in between. Americans deserve to live in better places, and for better or worse, economic and political forces will soon force us to change our behavior and reconstruct our towns and cities.

Re-Localization and Downscaling. The centralization of U.S. institutions such as the retail trade, agriculture, and education has had multiple negative impacts on the country. Many Americans have viewed these trends as a boon for efficiency and productivity, without taking into account the significant losses and costs to their communities and to the long-term health of their nation. Kunstler points out the instability of these systems, and advocates for their reorganization around local communities. These centralized systems have all but eliminated the "middlemen"--people who were "members of local communities, economic participants in their communities, they made decisions that had to take the needs of their communities into account, they were caretakers of civic institutions, and they were employers." To restore  the place of these middlemen, Kunstler believes, we will need to move from a culture of quantity to a culture of quality, by re-localizing and downscaling these processes.


"We created a landscape of scary places, and we became a nation of scary people."

"If Las Vegas truly is our city of the future, then we might as well all cut our throats tomorrow."

"It is hard to imagine a culture less concerned than ours with the things that make life worth living."

"The public realm in America became so atrocious in the postwar decades that the Disney Corporation was able to create an artificial substitute for it and successfully sell it as a commodity."

"The fiasco of suburbia, so acute and so damaging to our culture in general, has otherwise intelligent and educated people adopting foolish positions on our national land-use crisis."

"The problem with our common American daily environments is not that they are too uniform, but that they are of uniformly miserable quality."

"Civic life is not about being alone. It's about getting along with other people in a real place. Not just because you have to, but because of the wonderful benefits conferred on us by the condition known as civilization."

"The 20th Century was about getting around. The 21st Century will be about staying in a place worth staying in."

"There's a reason that Elm Street and Main Street resonate in our cultural memory. It's not because we're sentimental saps. It's because this pattern of human ecology produced places that worked wonderfully well, and which people deeply loved."

"The future will require us to build better places, or the future will belong to other people in other societies."

"We're fortunate that there is a movement gathering all over this country to remake our everyday world into places that are worth caring about. A new generation of political and cultural leaders declares that the physical form of our everyday world matters - it matters that we live in a national automobile slum. It matters that our schools look like insecticide factories, and our town halls look like wholesale beverage outlets, and our best hotels look like medium security prisons... The New Urbanism recognizes that we have been living through an extraordinarily abnormal period of cultural amnesia that is now coming to an end. We are ready to reconnect the past and the future in order to live in a hopeful present."

"A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending."

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space