Monday, March 20, 2006

"Home" at Ten: Are the New Urbanists Right? (First in a Series)

   Ten years ago, social critic James Howard Kunstler published "Home From Nowhere."  Perhaps more than any other work, "Home" (which followed Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere") provided a readable source of criticism of the American suburban model and offered proposals for revamping our land use laws.  In plain language, Kunstler decried the everyday world in the United States an "abysmal mess."  The solution, he argued, was a reversal our laws that separated land uses, required low density, and depended on the automobile.  Instead, he proposed changes to encourage "mixed-use neighborhoods" in which people could walk, ride their bike, or take public transportation to nearby friends, stores, and jobs.  He pointed to the ideas of the "New Urbanist" architects and planners.  He also bucked trends by, for example, criticizing the environmentalist shibboleth of "green space" for its own sake in the metropolitan world.
  The construction of our sprawling suburban world has been a "self-destructive act," Kunstler maintained.  We should replace it with the models of dense cities, as in Europe, and of the old small town Main Street, which "people loved deeply," he wrote.
   In a series of entries in this blog, I will from time to time examine how American law and culture has responded over the past ten years to Home and its ideas.  On one hand, the benefits of density and mixed use have become an accepted part of the urban dialogue.  On the other hand, sprawl has continued unabated.  While some Americans have returned to the city, many others have embraced the ideal of suburban life as never before, with huge SUVs (with their own DVD players) and enormous homes inside of gates and regulated by restrictive deeds and covenants. 
   What have Kunstler and his cohorts taught us?   How have they been right?  How have they been wrong?  Please watch this space.

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