urban sociology

Project description
Most of us have experienced both the cities and suburbs in various locations during our lives. Maybe you live in a suburb but go to cities to visit the museum or a see a concert; maybe you live in the city but have friends or family in the suburbs (or used to live there in the past). Draw on your memories and current observations and answer the following:

Topic Question 1: What do think are some benefits for living in suburbs? What about the city? What thoughts do you have regarding which appeals to you more?

Please read “Home From Nowhere” BEFORE answering Topic Question 2.

You only need to read the first 7 pages (see Exercise 13.2 for more)

Topic Question 2: In the reading “Home From Nowhere,” James Kunstler claims that modern design, for the sake of expedience, has “diminished us spiritually” and “impoverished us socially.” What does this mean? What are some examples of how urban design is different today than it was in the past? (Draw from reading and personal examples.) What are some possible solutions to this dilemma? What are your thoughts?

Can the momentum of sprawl be halted? America’s zoning laws, intended to control the baneful effects
of industry, have mutated, in the view of one architecture critic, into a system that corrodes civic life,

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outlaws the human scale, defeats tradition and
authenticity, and confounds our yearning for an
everyday environment worthy of our affection
by
James Howard Kunstler
A
MERICANS 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 “no sense of place” and “the loss of
community.” We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce, and we’re
overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sight

the fry pits,
the big

box stores, the office units, the lube joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive
plastic townhouse clusters, the uproa
r of signs, the highway itself clogged with cars

as though the whole
thing had been designed by some diabolical force bent on making human beings miserable. And naturally,
this experience can make us feel glum about the nature and future of our civiliza
tion.
When we drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk that we’ve smeared all over
the landscape, we register it as ugliness. This ugliness is
the surface expression of deeper problems

problems that relate 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, an environmental calamity, sociall
y
devastating, and spiritually degrading.
It is no small irony that during the period of America’s greatest prosperity, in the decades following the
Second World War, we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic
building
s. Compare any richly embellished firehouse or post office built in 1904 with its dreary concrete

box counterpart today. Compare the home of a small

town bank president of the 1890s, with its massive
masonry walls and complex roof articulation, with the fl
imsy home of a 1990s business leader, made of
two

by

fours, Sheetrock, and fake fanlight windows. When we were a far less wealthy nation, we built
things with the expectation that they would endure. To throw away money (painfully acquired) and effort
(pain
fully expended) on something certain to fall apart in thirty years would have seemed immoral, if not
insane, in our great

grandparents’ day.
The buildings our predecessors constructed paid homage to history in their design, including elegant
solutions to a
ge

old problems posed by the cycles of weather and light, and they paid respect to the future
in the sheer expectation that they would endure through the lifetimes of the people who built them. They
therefore embodied a sense of chronological connectivity,
one of the fundamental patterns of the universe:
an understanding that time is a defining dimension of existence

particularly the existence of living things,
such as human beings, who miraculously pass into life and then inevitably pass out of it.
Chro
nological connectivity lends meaning and dignity to our little lives. It charges the present with a vivid
validation of our own aliveness. It puts us in touch with the ages and with the eternities, suggesting that we
are part of a larger and more significa
nt organism. It even suggests that the larger organism we are part of
cares
about us, and that, in turn, we should respect ourselves and our fellow creatures and all those who
will follow us in time, as those preceding us respected those who followed them.
In short, chronological
connectivity puts us in touch with the holy. It is at once humbling and exhilarating. I say this as someone
who has never followed any formal religious practice. Connection with the past and the future is a pathway
that charms us i
n the direction of sanity and grace.
The antithesis to this can be seen in the way we have built things since 1945. We reject the past and the
future, and this repudiation is manifest in our graceless constructions. Our residential, commercial, and
civic b
uildings are constructed with the fully conscious expectation that they will disintegrate in a few
decades. This condition even has a name: “design life.” Strip malls and elementary schools have short
design lives. They are expected to fall apart in less t
han fifty years. Since these things are not expected to
speak to any era but our own, we seem unwilling to put money or effort into their embellishment. Nor do
we care about traditional solutions to the problems of weather and light, because we have techno
logy to
mitigate these problems

namely, central heating and electricity. Thus in many new office buildings the
windows don’t open. In especially bad buildings, like the average Wal

Mart, windows are dispensed with
nearly altogether. This process of disc
onnection from the past and the future, and from the organic patterns
of weather and light, done for the sake of expedience, ends up diminishing us spiritually, impoverishing us
socially, and degrading the aggregate set of cultural patterns that we call ci
vilization.
Destroying the
Grand Union Hotel
T
HE everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead
patterns. These environments infect the patterns around them with disease and ultimately with contagious
deadness,

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and deaden us in the process. The patterns that emerge fail to draw us in, fail to invite us to
participate in the connectivity of the world. They frustrate our innate biological and psychological needs

for instance, our phototropic inclination to seek
natural daylight, our need to feel protected, our need to
keep a destination in sight as we move about town. They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm.
Our streets used to be charming and beautiful. The public realm of the street was understood t
o function as
an outdoor room. Like any room, it required walls to define the essential void of the room itself. Where I
live, Saratoga Springs, New York, a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel once existed. Said
to have been the largest hotel
in the world in the late nineteenth century, it occupied a six

acre site in the
heart of town. The hotel consisted of a set of narrow buildings that lined the outside of an unusually large
superblock. Inside the block was a semi

public parklike courtyard.
The street sides of the hotel incorporated
a gigantic verandah twenty feet deep, with a roof that was three stories high and supported by columns.
This facade functioned as a marvelous street wall, active and permeable. The hotel’s size (a central cupola
reached seven stories) was appropriate to the scale of the town’s main street, called Broadway. For much of
the year the verandah was filled with people sitting perhaps eight feet above the sidewalk grade, talking to
one another while they watched the page
ant of life on the street. These verandah

sitters were protected
from the weather by the roof, and protected from the sun by elm trees along the sidewalk. The orderly rows
of elms performed an additional architectural function. The trunks were straight and
round, like columns,
reiterating and reinforcing the pattern of the hotel facade, while the crowns formed a vaulted canopy over
the sidewalk, pleasantly filtering the sunlight for pedestrians as well as hotel patrons. All these patterns
worked to enhance
the lives of everybody in town

a common laborer on his way home as well as a
railroad millionaire rocking on the verandah. In doing so, they supported civic life as a general proposition.
They nourished our civilization.
When I say that the facade of th
e Grand Union Hotel was permeable, I mean that the building contained
activities that attracted people inside, and had a number of suitably embellished entrances that allowed
people to pass in and out of the building gracefully and enjoyably. Underneath th
e verandah, half a story
below the sidewalk grade, a number of shops operated, selling cigars, newspapers, clothing, and other
goods. Thus the street wall was permeable at more than one level and had a multiplicity of uses.
The courtyard park that occupied
the inside of the six

acre block had winding gravel paths lined with
benches among more towering elm trees. It was a tranquil place of repose

though sometimes band
concerts and balls were held there. Any reasonably attired person could walk in off the
street, pass through
the hotel lobby, and enjoy the interior park. This courtyard had even

more

overt characteristics of a big
outdoor room than the street did. It was much more enclosed. Like the street facade, the courtyard facade
featured a broad, perme
able verandah with a high roof. The verandah functioned as a mediating zone
between the outdoor world and the world of the hotel’s interior, with its many public, semi

public, and
private rooms. One passed from public to private in a logical sequence, and
the transition was eased at each
stage by conscious embellishment. The order of things was, by nature, more formal than what we are
accustomed to in our sloppy, clownish, informal age. The layers of intersecting patterns at work in this
place were extraord
inarily rich. The patterns had a quality of great aliveness, meaning they worked
wonderfully as an ensemble, each pattern doing its job while it supported and reinforced the other patterns.
The hotel was therefore a place of spectacular charm. It was demol
ished in 1953.
Although nothing lasts forever, it was tragic that this magnificent building was destroyed less than a
hundred years after it was completed. In 1953 America stood at the brink of the greatest building spree in
world history, and the very qua
lities that had made the Grand Union Hotel so wonderful were antithetical to
all the new stuff that America was about to build. The town demolished it with a kind of mad glee. What
replaced the hotel was a strip mall anchored by, of all things, a Grand Uni
on supermarket. This shopping
plaza was prototypical for its time. Tens of thousands of strip malls like it have been built all over America
since then. It is in every one of its details a perfect piece of junk. It is the anti

place.
What had been the hear
t and soul of the town was now converted into a kind of mini

Outer Mongolia. The
strip

mall buildings were set back from Broadway 150 feet, and a parking lot filled the gap. The street and
the buildings commenced a nonrelationship. Since the new buildings
were one story high, their scale bore
no relation to the scale of the town’s most important street. They failed to create a street wall. The
perception that the street functioned as an outdoor room was lost. The space between the buildings and the
street n
ow had one function: automobile storage. The street, and consequently the public realm in general,
was degraded by the design of the mall. As the street’s importance as a public place declined, townspeople
ceased to care what happened in it. If it became j
ammed with cars, so much the better, because individual
cars were now understood to be not merely personal transportation but personal home

delivery vehicles,
enabling customers to haul away enormous volumes of merchandise very efficiently, at no cost to t
he
merchandiser

which was a great boon for business. That is why the citizens of Saratoga Springs in 1953
were willing to sacrifice the town’s most magnificent building. We could simply throw away the past. The
owners of the supermarket that anchored th
e mall didn’t live in town. They didn’t care what effect their
design considerations had on the town. They certainly didn’t care about the town’s past, and their interest in
the town’s future had largely to do with technicalities of selling dog food and so
ap flakes.
What has happened to the interrelation of healthy, living patterns of human ecology in the town where I
live has happened all over the country. Almost everywhere the larger patterns are in such a sorry state that
the details seem irrelevant. Whe
n Saratoga Springs invested tens of thousands of dollars in Victorian

style
streetlamps in an effort to create instant charm, the gesture seemed pathetic, because the larger design
failures were ignored. It is hard to overstate how ridiculous these lamppos
ts look in the context of our
desolate streets and the cheap, inappropriate new buildings amid their parking lots in what remains of our
downtown. The lamppost scheme was like putting Band

Aids on someone who had tripped and fallen on
his chainsaw.
The one

story

high Grand Union strip

mall building must be understood as a pattern in itself, a dead one,
which infects surrounding town tissue with its deadness. Putting up one

story commercial buildings
eliminated a large number of live bodies downtown, and und
ermined the vitality of the town. One

story
mall buildings became ubiquitous across the United States after the war, a predictable byproduct of the
zoning zeitgeist that deemed shopping and apartment living to be unsuitable neighbors.
Creating Someplace
A
LMOST everywhere in the United States laws prohibit building the kinds of places that Americans
themselves consider authentic and traditional. Laws prevent the building of places that human beings can
feel good in and can afford to live in. Laws forbid us
to build places that are worth caring about.
Is Main Street your idea of a nice business district? Sorry, your zoning laws won’t let you build it, or even
extend it where it already exists. Is Elm Street your idea of a nice place to live

you know, house
s with
front porches on a tree

lined street? Sorry, Elm Street cannot be assembled under the rules of large

lot
zoning and modern traffic engineering. All you can build where I live is another version of Los Angeles

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the zoning laws say so.
This is not a
gag. Our zoning laws are essentially a manual of instructions for creating the stuff of our
communities. Most of these laws have been in place only since the Second World War. For the previous
300

odd years of American history we didn’t have zoning laws.
We had a popular consensus about the right
way to assemble a town or a city. Our best Main Streets and Elm Streets were created not by municipal
ordinances but by cultural agreement. Everybody agreed that buildings on Main Street ought to be more
than one
story tall; that corner groceries were good to have in residential neighborhoods; that streets ought
to intersect with other streets to facilitate movement; that sidewalks were necessary, and that orderly rows
of trees planted along them made the sidewalks
much more pleasant; that roofs should be pitched to shed
rain and snow; that doors should be conspicuous, so that one could easily find the entrance to a building;
that windows should be vertical, to dignify a house. Everybody agreed that communities need
ed different
kinds of housing to meet the needs of different kinds of families and individuals, and the market was
allowed to supply them. Our great

grandparents didn’t have to argue endlessly over these matters of civic
design. Nor did they have to reinve
nt civic design every fifty years because no one could remember what
had been agreed on.
Everybody agreed that both private and public buildings should be ornamented and embellished to honor
the public realm of the street, so town halls, firehouses, banks,
and homes were built that today are on the
National Register of Historic Places. We can’t replicate any of that stuff. Our laws actually forbid it. Want
to build a bank in Anytown, USA? Fine. Make sure that it’s surrounded by at least an acre of parking,
and
that it’s set back from the street at least seventy

five feet. (Of course, it will be one story.) The instructions
for a church or a muffler shop are identical. That’s exactly what your laws tell you to build. If you deviate
from the template, you will
not receive a building permit.
Therefore, if you want to make your community better, begin at once by throwing out your zoning laws.
Don’t revise them

get rid of them. Set them on fire if possible and make a public ceremony of it; public
ceremony is a
great way to announce the birth of a new consensus. While you’re at it, throw out your
“master plan” too. It’s invariably just as bad. Replace these things with a traditional town

planning
ordinance that prescribes a more desirable everyday environment.
Th
e practice of zoning started early in the twentieth century, at a time when industry had reached an
enormous scale. The noisy, smelly, dirty operations of gigantic factories came to overshadow and oppress
all other aspects of city life, and civic authoriti
es decided that they had to be separated from everything
else, especially residential neighborhoods. One could say that single

use zoning, as it came to be called,
was a reasonable response to the social and economic experiment called industrialism.
After
the Second World War, however, that set of ideas was taken to an absurd extreme. Zoning itself
began to overshadow all the historic elements of civic art and civic life. For instance, because the
democratic masses of people used their cars to shop, and mas
ses of cars required parking lots, 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.
What zoning produces is suburban
sprawl,
which must be understood as the product of a particular set of
instructions. Its chief characteristics are the strict separation of hum
an activities, mandatory driving to get
from one activity to another, and huge supplies of free parking. After all, the basic idea of zoning is that
every activity demands a separate zone of its own. For people to live around shopping would be harmful
and
indecent. Better not even to allow them within walking distance of it. They’ll need their cars to haul all
that stuff home anyway. While we’re at it, let’s separate the homes by income gradients. Don’t let the
$75,000

a

year families live near the $200,000

a

year families

they’ll bring down property values

and
for God’s sake don’t let a $25,000

a

year recent college graduate or a $19,000

a

year widowed grandmother
on Social Security live near any of them. There goes the neighborhood! Now put all the w
orkplaces in
separate office “parks” or industrial “parks,” and make sure nobody can walk to them either. As for public
squares, parks, and the like

forget it. We can’t afford them, because we spent all our funds paving the
four

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lane highways and collec
tor roads and parking lots, and laying sewer and water lines out to the
housing subdivisions, and hiring traffic cops to regulate the movement of people in their cars going back
and forth among these segregated activities.
The model of the human habitat di
ctated by zoning is a formless, soul

less, centerless, demoralizing mess.
It bankrupts families and townships. It disables whole classes of decent, normal citizens. It ruins the air we
breathe. It corrupts and deadens our spirit.
The construction industry
likes it, because it requires stupendous amounts of cement, asphalt, and steel and
a lot of heavy equipment and personnel to push all this stuff into place. Car dealers love it. Politicians used
to love it, because it produced big short

term profits and sh
ort

term revenue gains, but now they’re all
mixed up about it, because the voters who live in suburban sprawl don’t want more of the same built around
them

which implies that at some dark level suburban

sprawl dwellers are quite conscious of sprawl’s
sh
ortcomings. They have a word for it: “growth.” They’re now against growth. Their lips curl when they
utter the word. They sense that new construction is only going to make the place where they live worse.
They’re convinced that the future is going to be wo
rse than the past. And they’re right, because the future
has been getting worse throughout their lifetime. Growth means only more traffic, bigger parking lots, and
buildings ever bigger and uglier than the monstrosities of the sixties, seventies, and eight
ies.
So they become NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”) and BANANAs (“build absolutely nothing anywhere
near anything”). If they’re successful in their NIMBYism, they’ll use their town government to torture
developers (people who create growth) with layer upon
layer of bureaucratic rigmarole, so that only a
certified masochist would apply to build something there. Eventually the unwanted growth leapfrogs over
them to cheap, vacant rural land farther out, and then all the new commuters in the farther

out suburb c
hoke
the NIMBYs’ roads anyway, to get to the existing mall in NIMBYville.
Unfortunately, the NIMBYs don’t have a better model in mind. They go to better places on holiday
weekends

Nantucket
, St.
Augustine,
little New England towns

but they think of these places as special
exceptions. It never occurs to NIMBY tourists that their own home places could be that good too.
Make
Massapequa like
Nantucket? Where would I park?
Exactly.

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These special places are modeled on a pre

automobile template. They were designed for a human scale and
in some respects maintained that way. Such a thing is unimaginable to us today. We must design for the
automobi
le, because…because all our laws and habits tell us we must. Notice that you can get to all these
special places in your car. It’s just a nuisance to use the car while you’re there

so you stash it someplace
for the duration of your visit and get aroun
d perfectly happily on foot, by bicycle, in a cab, or on public
transit. The same is true, by the way, of London, Paris, and Venice.
The future will not allow us to continue using cars the way we’ve been accustomed to in the unprecedented
conditions of the
late twentieth century. So, whether we adore
suburbia
or not, we’re going to have to live
differently. Rather than being a tragedy, this is actually an extremely lucky situation
, a wonderful
opportunity, because we are now free to redesign our everyday world in a way that is going to make all
classes of Americans much happier. We do not have to come up with tools and techniques never seen
before. The principles of town planning c
an be found in excellent books written before the Second World
War. Three

dimensional models of the kinds of places that can result from these principles exist in the form
of historic towns and cities. In fact, after two generations of architectural amnesi
a, this knowledge has been
reinstalled in the brains of professional designers in active practice all over the country, and these designers
have already begun to create an alternate model of the human habitat for the twenty

first century.
What’s missing is
a more widespread consensus

a cultural agreement

in favor of the new model, and
the will to go forward with it. Large numbers of ordinary citizens haven’t heard the news. They’re stuck in
old habits and stuck in the psychology of previous investment
; political leadership reflects this all over
America. NIMBYism is one of the results, a form of hysterical cultural paralysis.
Don’t build anything!
Don’t change anything!
The consensus that exists, therefore, is a consensus of fear, and that is obviously
not good enough. We need a consensus of hope.
In the absence of a widespread consensus about how to build a better everyday environment, we’ll have to
replace the old set of rules with an explicit new set

or, to put it a slightly different way, replace
zoning
laws with principles of civic art. It will take time for these principles to become second nature again, to
become common sense. It may not happen at all, in which case we ought to be very concerned. In the event
that this body of ideas gains wides
pread acceptance, think of all the time and money we’ll save! No more
endless nights down at the zoning board watching the NIMBYs scream at the mall developers. No more
real

estate

related lawsuits. We will have time, instead, to become better people and t
o enjoy our lives on a.

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