December 7, 1997
Professor: Dennis R. Judd, Ph.D.
Potential Solutions for the Problems of the American Landscape Depicted in The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere points out the multitude of flaws of post-World War Two land development strategies in the United States. These problems are dominated by the establishment of mandatory segregation of function in development, i.e. zoning. Inflexible zoning which included minimum lot-size regulations, coupled with substantial federal subsidies for interstate highway construction and for mortgages on new houses, enabled and indeed ensured the creation of the current pattern of sprawl in suburban areas. The reversal of these policies, and the concomitant establishment of policies to create dense urban communities, are both essential to reviving the concepts of community and local economy described by Kunstler. Joe Frank.
The Creation of Suburbia
The United States today is a country where suburban lifestyles dominate. The primary concern of the middle-classes and upper-classes is with their property. " 'You can't tell me what to do with my land' " aptly summarizes this view in which rugged individualism supposedly dominates (Kunstler 1993, p. 26). Land which was decisively rural in character was bought by speculators and developers, who were at first associated with streetcar companies, but who after World War Two primarily predicated their purchases and developments on the improvement of highways and roads. Joe Frank.
The National Defense Highways Act of 1956 ensured the federal government would pay for ninety percent of the costs of building thousands of miles of new expressways. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans could only be offered to new houses. Unlike old-time mortgages, which required thirty to fifty percent down-payments and typically extended over ten years or less, the revolutionary FHA-backed loans only took ten percent down and could be paid off over a thirty year span. The FHA frowned upon "old houses with leaky plumbing, jammed into narrow lots on crowded streets, inhabited in some cases by immigrants or, increasingly, African-Americans. Houses like these were losers from the FHA point of view and the agency wouldn't guarantee mortgages on them" (p. 102). These two federal policies combined meant that commuting twenty miles one-way to work became quite conceivable; the trip from a gloriously green, uncrowded, and most of all brand new subdivision to the concrete canyons of downtown could be accomplished in a half-hour or less. Further, gasoline was cheap because most of it came from crude oil found in the contiguous United States. Joe Frank.
More and more middle-class and eventually working class families fled the cities, following the well-to-do who had begun the suburban exodus in the late nineteenth century. Naturally the upper classes just moved further and further out, away from those inferior people, in order to retain the illusion of living in the countryside. However, the countryside was disappearing, too, as farmboys were attracted like moths to the city lights, and even those who remained in farming industrialized their operations for maximum profit, ignoring historic principles of land and animal husbandry in favor of high-output, single crop operations which required potent pesticides to prevent their decimation and keep prepackaged food items in the farmers' kitchens. Joe Frank.
Zoning came about as a reaction against the problems of urban squalor. High-density and mixed-use were the ultimate enemies of sacred property values. Exclusivity was also important--someone who had achieved high annual income certainly did not want to live near someone living on public assistance. Coupled with exclusion was an intense desire for privacy; thus subdivisions came to built under the restrictions that no buildings could be built within ten feet of the property line, and a one acre lot size was the minimum allowed. The lot sizes generally were smaller in middle-class and working-class developments, but always had about twice as much street frontage as typical urban single-family lots. Joe Frank.
Properties zoned for single-family development could not be used for commercial activity, nor could any rental spaces be allowed. Thus subdivisions of a specific price range remained resolutely homogeneous in the character of their residents, unless outside forces caused a shift in desirability of the area for the particular class which had occupied it. Commerce was stuck in specific zones, usually strips several hundred yards wide on either side of the main state or county highways. Industry typically was relegated to areas near railway lines, in river valleys, or both. Even then, it had to conform to minimum lot sizes and parking space allotment standards. The office park and industrial park came into being largely as speculative projects, and often were opposed by established nearby residents for the increase in automobile traffic they would cause. Yet they fit in perfectly with the pattern of sprawl, because zoning policies ensured it. Joe Frank.
Speculators and developers also were able to get tracts designated for multi-family use, but these had to be segregated from single-family areas somehow. Typically this means apartment complexes, i.e. ten to twenty structures built at once, with adjacent parking pools, were adjacent to commercial properties, or just placed their backs up to the backs of single-family areas, with a few tiny trees planted in between as a token 'buffer zone'. Similar zones might also be used to block views of commercial and industrial sectors from the residential sectors. In any case, the streets usually did not connect to one another; to get from the single-family area to the industrial or commercial area nearby, one had to go out of the subdivision, onto the collector road, and then into the industrial park or shopping plaza entry drive. This of course required driving an automobile, because sidewalks usually did not exist. Joe Frank.
Actually, sidewalks began to reappear as part of zoning requirements in the 1970s and 1980s. However, in many suburban areas most of the development occurred in the 40s, 50s and 60s, when the obsession with the freedom inherent in the private automobile reached its zenith. With the 70s oil embargoes, citizens feared they would not be able to use their cars as much as they wanted to. Although gas prices soon fell yet again, the revised codes persisted. What results in places like St. Louis County, Missouri is almost laughable. Sidewalks start up at an intersection, then disappear after a few hundred yards. The first development passed may have been built only five years later than the next, but since the new building codes could not be retroactive, the older developments lack sidewalks while newer ones usually have them. Joe Frank.
An Example of Suburban Pedestrian Unfriendliness
Yet, variances are often granted to powerful developers which enable new construction without sidewalks. The rationale still seems to be that there is little demand for a sidewalk, so why build one? As a result, along Telegraph Road in the Oakville section of unincorporated South St. Louis County a pedestrian might start at Forder Road trudging southward along the roadway's west shoulder, because the apartment complex at the corner dates from the 70s, and the houses further ahead are from the 50s and 60s--most now have 'For Sale: Commercial' signs out front because the roadway's early 1980s widening to five lanes enabled rapid single-family residential development further south and an explosion in traffic. Continuing up a rather steep hill, the pedestrian must dodge traffic accident debris, big drink cups from the nearby convenience stores, and leaning mailboxes in front of the seemingly abandoned houses. At the next corner, a dead end street dating from the mid-60s with about twenty very attractive houses, there is a new one-story office building under construction where a pre-World War II house once stood. The new development has a sidewalk along its Telegraph frontage, which starts immediately at the property line and thus is only accessible by walking across the strip of newly installed sod between sidewalk and road. After the residential street, the sidewalk disappears. Continuing along the shoulder, the pedestrian realizes the crest of the hill and is reassured that the road will now be flat. However, there is no real focal point ahead, just a slight bend in the roadway. At the next intersection, a connector for a large 70s vintage subdivision, a sidewalk appears but curves back into the subdivision street. The house at the corner was part of the subdivision, but because it is on a state highway the developer must have received a variance to allow an abbreviated sidewalk, the tradeoff being that the entryway has formal right turn and left turn lanes with a short center median. After carefully crossing that roadway, the pedestrian continues along the shoulder until finally reaching an auto parts store, built in 1996, which has a sidewalk in front but also has a congested curb-cut entryway, since it is the only access to the store. It also has the problem of a sidewalk initiating at a residential lawn's edge. Joe Frank.
Once past the auto parts store, the sidewalk disappears yet again. The adjacent parcel is a strip shopping center, housing a few restaurants and offices including the local automobile license fee office. It was constructed in the late 70s, but either was approved before the zoning revision came into effect, or received a variance. Here, the pedestrian is tempted to simply walk across the lawn ahead because the shopping center entrance is just ahead, and walking on the shoulder would interfere with right-turning automobile traffic for the shopping center. Besides, the lawn strip between the parking lot and the shoulder is the perfect width for a walking path, necessary because it serves as a stormwater drainage area for the parking lot. After the parking lot entrance, the strip continues a bit further but abruptly terminates at a gasoline station lot. Joe Frank.
This gasoline station was built along with the shopping center, and is located at the corner of Telegraph with Yaeger Road, a two-lane county road without sidewalks or shoulders in most places, which provides access to numerous subdivisions. In order to negotiate the property edge of the gas station, the pedestrian must walk across the station lot's oversized entryway, rather than interfere with the constant flow of traffic turning right, onto Yeager Road. This also requires dodging a 'no-cut through' sign at the gas station entry, and shrubs planted next to the right turn lane where a sidewalk should be. The pedestrian crosses the right turn lane and enters a traffic island. Joe Frank.
The traffic island is not really a safe place for pedestrians, but because it is raised like a sidewalk it creates a false impression of safety. This intersection actually has a crosswalk signal, activated by a button which the pedestrian pushes, to serve the few students who walk to the nearby St. Francis of Assisi elementary school, just across Telegraph Road. The safety of using this signalized crosswalk is also dubious, however. The 'walk' sign is synchronized with the green light for traffic traveling east from Yeager across Telegraph into a subdivision road, Crestline Drive, which was actually planned so it have direct access to a traffic signal. However, much of the traffic coming east on Yeager instead turns north, onto Telegraph. The left turn signal comes on at the same time as the straight-ahead signal, but does not last as long. Thus when the pedestrian makes it halfway across the road, she must turn her head all the way around, to see if any cars are still swishing out of the left turn lane on the yellow left-arrow signal. By this time, the 'walk' sign has already changed to a flashing 'don't walk', meaning she needs to hurry up and cross. Once she finally does make it, she appears on yet another traffic island. Joe Frank.
Of course, the initial venture off the first traffic island must be taken with some trepidation. Although through-traffic on southbound Telegraph undoubtedly can see the red light ahead, motorists usually do not want to stop, especially since most had already had to stop at the signal a half-mile back at Forder Road. They need to get home, to the quick lube, or to the supermarket, quickly. Indeed, at this very intersection a student crossing guard was literally threatened with being run-over by an impatient motorist tired of waiting for the little Catholic children to make their way across the roadway. The crossing guard was bumped by the motorist's bumper, but stood his ground until the younger ones made their way across. For his valor, the student recently received an award from the St. Louis City and County police departments and a television station, including fast-food certificates and a brief spot on the TV news. Joe Frank.
The lone pedestrian gets no awards for negotiating the crosswalk. She now wants to cross Crestline Drive, and continue southward along Telegraph a bit further. Thus she must wait for another 'walk' sign, which again is not synchronized against left turns so she again must turn her head to ensure she will avoid collision with an automobile. Once across this road, the next island, and the right turn lane, she comes into the relative safety of the sidewalk. However, this sidewalk is only oriented toward pedestrians desiring to walk along Crestline entering the subdivision. The Christian Church at this corner was extensively renovated and expanded in the mid 90s, and as part of the renovation the sidewalk along Telegraph was redirected to parallel the building's new edge, rather than the roadway. Thus the pedestrian must either go substantially out of her way to follow the sidewalk, or just walk across the lawn. Joe Frank.
Eventually, the sidewalk returns to paralleling the road. The pedestrian rejoins the sidewalk, and soon reaches the property line of the ultimate destination: the Cliff Cave Branch of St. Louis County Library. The sidewalk in front of the library parking lot runs between a stand of trees planted along the lot edge, and an ugly, often smelly drainage ditch next to the roadway. The library also has a very busy entry-exit drive, with no access to a traffic signal even though the neighboring church is at a signalized intersection. The pedestrian crosses this driveway with great trepidation also, and then follows the sidewalk next to it into the only entrance to the library, which is oriented to the parking lot. The library was built in the early 80s, so it has these sidewalk amenities. Now the pedestrian can finally enter the automatic doors and the theft-prevention gates at the library, to sit, rest after this ordeal, and maybe look for some books. Joe Frank.
Subdivisions, Not Neighborhoods
The very language used to describe these places called suburbs hints at their distinct lack of a community life. A few hundred houses all built basically at the same time on former farmland or forest is a subdivision, not a neighborhood. The term subdivision originally meant only the dividing of a large parcel of property into smaller parcels. In dense urban areas, with corner stores, schools, taverns, duplexes, flats, and bungalows intermixed on the same street, a concept of neighborhood developed because there was constant contact with other human beings. Suburban areas segregate uses, so that there is little mingling opportunity available. Suburban municipalities call themselves communities, and spend their dollars building 'community centers' which usually are just places for elderly folks' meals and maybe a subsidized daycare program, although a few also have swimming pools for 'residents only.' They all require large parking lots, and sometimes also serve as city hall. However, suburban cities and villages usually are a jumble of subdivisions, strip malls, and, in the luckier ones, a major shopping mall or some industrial-business parks. They have little in the way of common interests, aside from protecting property values, which is indeed the most typical stated reason for forming a suburban municipality. Calling them communities is usually disingenuous. Joe Frank.
A New Kind of Zoning
So, after presenting all these criticisms, what can be done to change things? One programmatic change is Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), "good old-fasioned urban planning repackaged for developers" (Kunstler 1993, p. 258). Joe Frank.
TND involves mixed-use development, including designs and activities prohibited by typical zoning laws. "A coherent grid of intersecting streets, houses closer together to define the public space, back alleys, garage apartments" are all aspects of TND (258). This system has been used to rewrite numerous municipal building codes, and could enable the development of new, urban spaces. However, this can do little to reverse the existing suburban development patterns. Joe Frank.
However, the Pedestrian Pockets plan of Peter Calthorpe can be used, provided that "a coherent network of rail or trolley lines" is developed (261). This strategy involves converting a 100 acre or so territory into a walkable, urban space providing housing for about 5000 people, commercial activity, and office space. Many of Calthorpe's projects have involved redesigning and redefining old shopping malls, such as at Clackamas Town Center in Clackamas, Oregon. Such a strategy might work well in conjunction with expansion of the MetroLink light rail system in St. Louis. South County Shopping Center, which currently is in need of extensive renovation for which the owners are requesting a substantial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) scheme, is also slated to be a MetroLink terminal and regional transfer center for a revised Bi-State bus network. A Pedestrian Pocket arrangement could work quite nicely at the mall's site, and would be a refreshing alternative to a brand new, totally private shopping mall. Such a plan would require substantial intestinal fortitude on the part of some developer and political leaders. Given that South County is under the jurisdiction of County Executive 'Buzz' Westfall and Council Councilman Jeff Wagener, such innovation is unlikely. Joe Frank.
An area like Jennings, Missouri might be more willing to explore a TND or Pedestrian Pocket scheme. Jennings is home to the Northland Shopping Center and River Roads Shopping Center, two malls which have been outstripped in attractiveness and profitability by the North County Festival and Jamestown Mall shopping centers further north. Jennings has also undergone a demographic shift, which included a decline in population. Northland is relatively desolate, and River Roads is completely empty except for a discount grocery and an automobile dealership; its out-of-town ownership is considering demolishing it and replacing it with industrial or residential development. Either of these sites would be great candidates for a pedestrian-oriented redevelopment. However, MetroLink may not reach these areas for fifteen to twenty to years, and may never run near River Roads. Northland will likely get a stop on the Northside line, but plans for it are rather spurious at the present time. Still, they are sites in need of some kind of revival. Joe Frank.
The area immediately north of University of Missouri-St. Louis North campus MetroLink station also seems like an ideal location for some kind of transit/pedestrian oriented redevelopment. Formerly a single-family residential area called Hollywood Park, much of it has been bought up by the University for future development programming. The 1993 UM-St. Louis master plan calls for it to be used for high-quality research-and-development, commercial, and office space, along with some kind of a hotel. This could certainly involve a pedestrian pocket scheme, and would have the potential for dramatic vistas given the sloping topography of the site. Of course, that very topography will make the area expensive to develop intensively. Yet with the presence of thousands of students, even though UM-St. Louis is a commuter campus, there is a definite opportunity to inject some life into the property because of its access to the campus and to MetroLink. There could be a strip extending from the MetroLink stop, and curving toward the Mark Twain Athletic Center, of two and three story buildings with street-level retail, offices and maybe research labs on the second floor, and possibly even inexpensive apartments on the third level. There might be a movie theater, or another medium-sized commercial operation, also included. Parking garages, if necessary, could be constructed downhill, along Florissant Road. If done properly, this could actually free up land on campus south of the MetroLink route, for non-parking uses. It could be a revenue source for the University, and ultimately also for the City of Normandy, which has complained about UM-St. Louis purchases of land in this very area. This could be an opportunity to create an urban landscape in an otherwise suburban region. Joe Frank.
Necessary Policy Reversals and Obstacles to Their Implementation
In order to allow high-density, mixed-use developments, there must be changes. Zoning codes must change, and many have in recent years. Highway subsidies must be reconfigured or eliminated. Banks must be more willing to loan in urban areas. Cities need to cooperate instead of compete for development projects. This has all been said again and again, but it will not be easy. Joe Frank.
One assumption Kunstler makes throughout The Geography of Nowhere is that gasoline prices will rise, and thus the American car culture will die. This is a fallacious assumption because new technologies constantly are developing, most recently the hybrid engine, which will enable private motoring to continue using substantially less fuel. People who are accustomed to living in the suburbs and driving thousands of miles a year just for basic needs and entertainment, are not likely to change. The big corporation is here and likely to remain, unless re-regulation on a massive scale is undertaken in key industries like banking. Joe Frank.
Instead, societal changes must occur incrementally. That is the only way anything can be done which is this hard. The concept of sustainability enters the picture here. Essentially, it means doing things and making things in consideration of the needs of future generations, and so that what is created today will last. This means decreasing excessive pollution by perhaps trying alternative energy sources. Industrialized countries must take the lead in this, and it must be coupled with population control. This also does not mean telling people to stop having children; it just means ceasing to glorify the birth of sextuplets and eliminating broad-based subsidies for large families like the $500 per child tax credit recently instituted. These two contemporary examples illustrate that such change just is not likely to happen right now, because powerful political forces oppose it. Joe Frank.
So, rather than straight out population control, there could at least be some measure of sprawl control. Urban growth boundaries (UGBs) delineate how far development can spread (Kunstler 1993, p. 204). Yet, few cities have successfully implemented them. In St. Louis, it is unlikely there would be agreement on where to draw the stupid lines--maybe at the Jefferson City city limits. One more realistic possibility is the expansion of tax incentives for development in the cities and inner suburbs. However, the Catch-22 is that by capping the property assessment, tax receipts are limited for the duration of the tax abatement period. This means a city with thousands of houses valued at $100,000 would only be able to tax those properties on their pre-redevelopment value of, for example, $10,000. The property tax receipts would not increase for that time period, unless of course the tax rate is raised. Indeed, what could easily occur is, with a stagnant tax rate, the total annual property tax receipts actually decrease because of tax abatements. The sales tax revenue increases resulting from a more vibrant economy would, theoretically, make up for it. However, according to Missouri state law, school districts do not get any money from sales taxes. If that system could be changed, tax abatement on a large scale might be workable. In the City of St. Louis, property tax earnings have been falling mainly because of property abandonments, although tax abatements certainly do not help. Meanwhile, sales tax receipts are reasonably stagnant. Thus the one percent earnings tax is the number one revenue stream for the City of St. Louis. It increases as wages increase. However, even it can certainly stagnate or drop as jobs leave the city--unless the City of St. Louis can develop schemes to tax all the employees of companies that have any operations, however small, within the city. That, of course, just alienates businesses and causes them to leave more rapidly. Joe Frank.
So what is the answer to urban sprawl? Urban Growth Boundaries are the simple answer, and may come to be implemented when citizens realize how wasteful the patterns of development are. Or maybe not. International politics, particularly in regard to global warming theories, will certainly play a part. The United Nations is not going to invade the Ozarks, but maybe it could help people understand that commuting is not really a whole lot of fun. The automobile will continue to dominate American culture, but maybe other choices, primarily light rail but also improved intercity passenger rail operations, will help rebuild communities. The best agricultural lands will continue to be tilled, even though the number of farmers may dwindle a bit further. Joe Frank.
Transportation choice will be key to reestablishing community. An attractive, functional, on-time operating multimodal system of local and intercity transit must be developed. Thus it will be possible to reinvigorate the areas immediately surrounding transit hubs. Telecommuting from home, rather than from telecom centers which really just fill up strip mall space, will help ease roadway congestion but only contribute to sprawl, since work could be done anywhere. It could help reunite families; nevertheless it is unlikely to be an option for most of the workforce. Thus the twenty-first century is a time when human needs must triumph over commercial interests. As it begins, the individual can only hope to endure and enjoy the extraordinary variety which characterizes these times. Joe Frank.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1993.
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