The Magazine


Mar 10, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 25 • By MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE
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Last year, when the skies cleared following a three-day blizzard that had dumped 22 inches of snow and had trapped me inside my suburban home, I quickly donned my boots, pushed open the front door, and squeezed outside. And all at once it hit me: There was nowhere to go. I was standing on a street that had no sidewalk at the end of a cul-de-sac; the closest tavern was four miles away, and only a dog sled could reach it. It was time to return to urban America. The suburbs, where I had been raised and to which I had retreated as an adult, had finally defeated me.

Anti-suburban sentiments like mine have spawned something of an industry these past few years. A growing movement called the New Urbanism, made up of architects, journalists, academics, and town planners, has dedicated itself to the proposition that the suburbanization of America has led to many of the country's social, psychological, and spiritual problems. For, rather than forming a new American community far from the "lonely crowd" discerned by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer in the urban masses, the suburbs have proved to be unfriendly and increasingly untraversable landscapes that isolate people in what might be called a "lonely sprawl."

What is striking about these new criticisms of suburbia is that they come not from the left of the political spectrum, where such arguments have long found a home, but from conservatives.

The New Urbanist credo is most pungently spelled out by James Howard Kunstler in his book The Geography of Nowhere and its recently published sequel Home from Nowhere. Kunstler decries America's modern landscape -- its "clogged highways, strip malls, tract houses, franchise fry pits, parking lots, junked cities and ravaged countryside" -- as the source of social ills that are "bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually."

The disconnection from neighbors and the sense of suburban isolation is, Kunstler thinks, a breeding ground for dependence on government. A lively community can help people to develop a sense of self-sufficiency. The suburbs, though, have been anything but lively. Kunstler argues that the story of American suburbanization after the Second World War is one of governmental interference and manipulation through giant public-works projects and zoning.

According to Kunstler, before the war there had been a cultural consensus about how our towns and cities should be built. Sized to human scale rather than for automobiles, American towns and cities had stores within walking distance of housing, broad sidewalks with trees, and public transportation. The street was an orderly row of ornate facades, not a strip-mall purgatory of cheap boxy warehouses and parking lagoons. Our civic buildings, like the town courthouse and the local school, were designed with an eye toward their importance, their columns echoing with authority, as opposed to the unimposing shoeboxes of the 1960s and 1970s, which echo with nothing.

What happened? According to Kunstler, zoning and planning happened -- rules intended to ensure the viability of towns and cities and prepare them fer economic development. To be sure, these rules originally had humane and understandable goals. It is true that Americans once lived in tight-knit, mixed-income urban communities with dance halls, corner taverns, and local churches. But they also lived dangerously close to the factories where they worked, and that meant living with and around industrial pollution. It seemed to make sense to separate the places people lived from the places they worked through rules and regulations that came to be known as zoning.

But in the postwar era, Kunstler writes, ideas about zoning and transportation were "taken to an absurd extreme. Zoning itself began to overshadow all the historic elements of civic art and civic life. . . . Shopping was declared an obnoxious industrial activity around which people shouldn't be allowed to live. This tended to destroy age-old physical relationships between shopping and living, as embodied, say, in Main Street."