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,
outlaws the human scale, defeats tradition and authenticity, and confounds
our yearning for an everyday environment worthy of our affection
by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is
the author of eight novels, including An Embarrassment of
Riches (1985) and The Halloween Ball (1987), and of
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made
Landscapes (1994). His article in this issue is drawn
from his book by the same title, to be published next month by Simon &
AMERICANS 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 uproar 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 civilization.
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, socially 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 buildings.
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 flimsy 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 (painfully 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 age-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.
Chronological 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 significant 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 in 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
buildings 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 than 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 technology 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 disconnection 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 civilization.
Grand Union Hotel
THE 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, 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 to 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 pageant 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
Painting of the Grand Union Hotel, circa 1890
When I say that the facade of the 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 the 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, permeable 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 extraordinarily 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 demolished 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 qualities 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 Union
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
What had been the heart 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 now 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 jammed 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 the 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 the 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 soap flakes.
Today: the Grand Union supermarket
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. When 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 lampposts 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
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 undermined 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.
ALMOST 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, houses 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 -- the zoning laws say
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 needed 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 reinvent 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.
The 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 authorities 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 masses 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 human
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 workplaces 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-lane highways and collector
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 dictated 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
short-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 shortcomings. 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 worse 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 eighties.
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 choke 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.
Americans pay premium prices to vacation in towns with traditional
streets like this one on Nantucket. Trees, fences, railings, walls,
lampposts, and front gardens help to scale and shape the civic space.
Drawing by Catherine Johnson
from James Howard Kunstler's book Home From Nowhere (Simon &
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
All rights reserved.
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 automobile,
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 around perfectly happily on foot, by bicycle, in a cab,
or on public transit. The same is true, by the way, of London, Paris, and
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 can 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 amnesia, 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 widespread 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 to enjoy our lives
on a planet full of beauty and mystery. Here, then, are some of the things
citizens will need to know in order to create a new model for the everyday
environment of America.
The New Urbanism
THE principles apply equally to villages, towns,
and cities. Most of them apply even to places of extraordinarily high
density, like Manhattan, with added provisions that I will not go into here,
in part because special cases like Manhattan are so rare, and in part
because I believe that the scale of even our greatest cities will
necessarily have to become smaller in the future, at no loss to their
dynamism (London and Paris are plenty dynamic, with few buildings over ten
The pattern under discussion here has been called variously
neo-traditional planning, traditional neighborhood development, low-density
urbanism, transit-oriented development, the
new urbanism, and just plain civic art. Its principles produce settings
that resemble American towns from prior to the Second World War.
1. The basic unit of planning is the neighborhood. A neighborhood
standing alone is a hamlet or village. A cluster of neighborhoods becomes a
town. Clusters of a great many neighborhoods become a city. The population
of a neighborhood can vary depending on local conditions.
2. The neighborhood is limited in physical size, with well-defined edges
and a focused center. The size of a neighborhood is defined as a five-minute
walking distance (or a quarter mile) from the edge to the center and a
ten-minute walk edge to edge. Human scale is the standard for proportions in
buildings and their accessories. Automobiles and other wheeled vehicles are
permitted, but they do not take precedence over human needs, including
aesthetic needs. The neighborhood contains a public-transit stop.
3. The secondary units of planning are corridors and districts. Corridors
form the boundaries between neighborhoods, both connecting and defining
them. Corridors can incorporate natural features like streams and canyons.
They can take the form of parks, nature preserves, travel corridors,
railroad lines, or some combination of these. In towns and cities a
neighborhood or parts of neighborhoods can compose a district. Districts are
made up of streets or ensembles of streets where special activities get
preferential treatment. The French Quarter of New Orleans is an example of a
district. It is a whole neighborhood dedicated to entertainment, in which
housing, shops, and offices are also integral. A corridor can also be a
district -- for instance, a major shopping avenue between adjoining
4. The neighborhood is emphatically mixed-use and provides housing for
people with different incomes. Buildings may be various in function but must
be compatible with one another in size and in their relation to the street.
The needs of daily life are accessible within the five-minute walk. Commerce
is integrated with residential, business, and even manufacturing use, though
not necessarily on the same street in a given neighborhood. Apartments are
permitted over stores. Forms of housing are mixed, including apartments,
duplex and single-family houses, accessory apartments, and outbuildings.
(Over time streets will inevitably evolve to become less or more desirable.
But attempts to preserve property values by mandating minimum-square-footage
requirements, outlawing rental apartments, or formulating other strategies
to exclude lower-income residents must be avoided. Even the best streets in
the world's best towns can accommodate people of various incomes.)
5. Buildings are disciplined on their lots in order to define public
space successfully. The street is understood to be the pre-eminent form of
public space, and the buildings that define it are expected to honor and
6. The street pattern is conceived as a network in order to create the
greatest number of alternative routes from one part of the neighborhood to
another. This has the beneficial effect of relieving traffic congestion. The
network may be a grid. Networks based on a grid must be modified by parks,
squares, diagonals, T intersections, rotaries, and other devices that
relieve the grid's tendency to monotonous regularity. The streets exist in a
hierarchy from broad boulevards to narrow lanes and alleys. In a town or a
city limited-access highways may exist only within a corridor, preferably in
the form of parkways. Cul-de-sacs are strongly discouraged except under
extraordinary circumstances -- for example, where rugged topography requires
7. Civic buildings, such as town halls, churches, schools, libraries, and
museums, are placed on preferential building sites, such as the frontage of
squares, in neighborhood centers, and where street vistas terminate, in
order to serve as landmarks and reinforce their symbolic importance.
Buildings define parks and squares, which are distributed throughout the
neighborhood and appropriately designed for recreation, repose, periodic
commercial uses, and special events such as political meetings, concerts,
theatricals, exhibitions, and fairs. Because streets will differ in
importance, scale, and quality, what is appropriate for a part of town with
small houses may not be appropriate as the town's main shopping street.
These distinctions are properly expressed by physical design.
8. In the absence of a consensus about the appropriate decoration of
buildings, an architectural code may be devised to establish some
fundamental unities of massing, fenestration, materials, and roof pitch,
within which many variations may function harmoniously.
Under the regime of zoning and the professional overspecialization that
it fostered, all streets were made as wide as possible because the
specialist in charge -- the traffic engineer -- was concerned solely with
the movement of cars and trucks. In the process much of the traditional
decor that made streets pleasant for people was gotten rid of. For instance,
street trees were eliminated. Orderly rows of mature trees can improve even
the most dismal street by softening hard edges and sunblasted bleakness.
Under postwar engineering standards street trees were deemed a hazard to
motorists and chopped down in many American towns.
THE practice of maximizing car movement at the
expense of all other concerns was applied with particular zeal to suburban
housing subdivisions. Suburban streets were given the characteristics of
county highways, though children played in them. Suburban developments
notoriously lack parks. The spacious private lots were supposed to make up
for the lack of parks, but children have a tendency to play in the street
anyway -- bicycles and roller skates don't work well on the lawn. Out in the
subdivisions, where trees along the sides of streets were often expressly
forbidden, we see those asinine exercises in romantic landscaping that
attempt to recapitulate the forest primeval in clumps of ornamental juniper.
In a setting so inimical to walking, sidewalks were often deemed a waste of
money. In the new urbanism the meaning of the street as the essential fabric
of the public realm is restored. The space created is understood to function
as an outdoor room, and building facades are understood to be street walls.
The sidewalk is an ensemble, including more than the pedestrian
path itself: a planting strip with orderly rows of trees and a curb
that can accommodate parked cars also contribute to the safety of
Drawing by Catherine Johnson
from James Howard Kunstler's book Home From Nowhere (Simon &
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
All rights reserved.
Thoroughfares are distinguished by their character as well as by their
capacity. The hierarchy of streets begins with the boulevard, featuring
express lanes in the center, local lanes on the sides, and tree-planted
medians between the express and local lanes, with parallel parking along all
curbs. Next in the hierarchy is the multilane avenue with a median. Then
comes a main shopping street, with no median. This is followed by two or
more orders of ordinary streets (apt to be residential in character), and
finally the lane or alley, which intersects blocks and becomes the preferred
location for garages and accessory apartments.
Parallel parking is emphatically permitted along the curbs of all
streets, except under the most extraordinary conditions. Parallel parking is
desirable for two reasons: parked cars create a physical barrier and
psychological buffer that protects pedestrians on the sidewalk from moving
vehicles; and a rich supply of parallel parking can eliminate the need for
parking lots, which are extremely destructive of the civic fabric. Anyone
who thinks that parallel parking "ruins" a residential street should take a
look at some of the most desirable real estate in America: Georgetown,
Beacon Hill, Nob Hill, Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis,
Princeton, Greenwich Village, Marblehead. All permit parallel parking.
Residential streets can and should be narrower than current
specifications permit. In general, cars need not move at speeds greater than
20 m.p.h. within a neighborhood. Higher speeds can be reserved for
boulevards or parkways, which occupy corridors. Within neighborhoods the
explicit intent is to calm and tame vehicular traffic. This is achieved by
the use of corners with sharp turning radii, partly textured pavements, and
T intersections. The result of these practices is a more civilized street.
Even under ideal circumstances towns and cities will have some streets
that are better than others. Over time streets tend to sort themselves out
in a hierarchy of quality as well as size. The new urbanism recognizes this
tendency, especially in city commercial districts, and designates streets A
or B. B streets may contain less-desirable structures -- for instance,
parking-garage entrances, pawnshops, a homeless shelter, a Burger King --
without disrupting the A streets in proximity. This does not mean that B
streets are allowed to be deliberately squalid. Even here the public realm
deserves respect. Cars are still not given dominion. A decent standard of
detailing applies to B streets with respect to sidewalks, lighting, and even
Property Values and
ZONING required the artificial creation of
"affordable housing," because the rules of zoning prohibited the very
conditions that formerly made housing available to all income groups and
integrated it into the civic fabric. Accessory apartments became illegal in
most neighborhoods, particularly in new suburbs. Without provision for
apartments, an unmarried sixth-grade schoolteacher could not afford to live
near the children she taught. Nor could the housecleaner and the gardener --
they had to commute for half an hour from some distant low-income ghetto. In
many localities apartments over stores were also forbidden under the zoning
laws. Few modern shopping centers are more than one story in height, and I
know of no suburban malls that incorporate housing. In eliminating
arrangements like these we have eliminated the most common form of
affordable housing, found virtually all over the rest of the world. By
zoning these things out, we've zoned out Main Street, USA.
The best way to make housing affordable is to build or restore compact,
mixed-use, traditional American neighborhoods. The way to preserve property
values is to recognize that a house is part of a community, not an isolated
object, and to make sure that the community maintains high standards of
civic amenity in the form of walkable streets and easy access to shops,
recreation, culture, and public beauty.
Towns built before the Second World War contain more-desirable and
less-desirable residential streets, but even the best can have
income-integrated housing. A $350,000 house can exist next to a $180,000
house with a $600-a-month garage apartment (which has the added benefit of
helping the homeowner pay a substantial portion of his mortgage). Such a
street might house two millionaires, eleven professionals, a dozen wage
workers, sixteen children, three full-time mothers, a college student, two
grandmothers on Social Security, and a bachelor fireman. That is a street
that will maintain its value and bring people of different ages and
occupations into informal contact.
Density, Not Congestion
"CONGESTION" was the scare word of the past, as
"growth" is the scare word of our time. The fear of congestion sprang from
the atrocious conditions in urban slums at the turn of the century. The
Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1900 is said to have contained more
inhabitants per square mile than are found in modern-day Calcutta. If
crowding had been confined to the slums, it might not have made such an
impact on the public imagination. But urban congestion was aggravated by the
revolutionary effects of the elevator, the office skyscraper, the sudden
mass replication of large apartment buildings, and the widespread
introduction of the automobile. These innovations drastically altered the
scale and tone of city life. Within a generation cities went from being
dynamic to being -- or at least seeming -- frighteningly overcrowded. Those
with the money to commute were easily persuaded to get out, and thus in the
1920s came the first mass evacuation to new suburbs, reachable primarily by
automobile. The movement was slowed by the Great Depression and then by the
Second World War. The memory of all that lingers. Tremendous confusion about
density and congestion persists in America today, even though most urban
areas and even many small towns (like my own) now suffer from density
deficits. Too few people live, and businesses operate, at the core to
maintain the synergies necessary for civic life. The new urbanism proposes a
restoration of synergistic density, within reasonable limits. These limits
are controlled by building size. The new urbanism calls for higher density
-- more houses per acre, closer together -- than zoning does. However, the
new urbanism is modeled not on the urban slum but on the traditional
American town. This is not a pattern of life that should frighten reasonable
people. Millions pay forty dollars a day to walk through a grossly
oversimplified version of it at Disney World. It conforms exactly to their
most cherished fantasies about the ideal living arrangement.
Houses may be freestanding in the new urbanism, but their lots are
smaller than those in sprawling subdivisions. Streets of connected row
houses are also deemed desirable. Useless front lawns are often eliminated.
The new urbanism compensates for this loss by providing squares, parks,
greens, and other useful, high-quality civic amenities. The new urbanism
also creates streets of beauty and character. This model does not suffer
from congestion. Occupancy laws remain in force -- sixteen families aren't
jammed into one building, as in the tenements of yore. Back yards provide
plenty of privacy, and houses can be large and spacious on their lots.
People and cars are able to circulate freely in the network of streets. The
car is not needed for trips to the store, the school, or other local places.
This pattern encourages good connections between people and their commercial
and cultural institutions.
The crude street pattern of zoning, with its cul-de-sacs and collector
streets, actually promotes congestion, because absolutely every trip out of
the single-use residential pod must be made by car onto the collector
street. The worst congestion in America today takes place not in the narrow
streets of traditional neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Alexandria but
on the six-lane collector streets of Tysons Corner, Virginia, and other
places created by zoning. Because of the extremely poor connectivity
inherent in them, such products of zoning have much of the infrastructure of
a city and the culture of a backwater.
Composing a Street Wall
IN order for a street to achieve the intimate and
welcoming quality of an outdoor room, the buildings along it must compose a
suitable street wall. Whereas they may vary in style and expression, some
fundamental agreement, some unity, must pull buildings into alignment. Think
of one of those fine side streets of row houses on the Upper East Side of
New York. They may express in masonry every historical fantasy from
neo-Egyptian to Ruskinian Gothic. But they are all close to the same height,
and even if their windows don't line up precisely, they all run to four or
five stories. They all stand directly along the sidewalk. They share
materials: stone and brick. They are not interrupted by vacant spaces or
parking lots. About half of them are homes; the rest may be diplomatic
offices or art galleries. The various uses co-exist in harmony. The same may
be said of streets on Chicago's North Side, in Savannah, on Beacon Hill, in
Georgetown, in Pacific Heights, and in many other ultra-desirable
neighborhoods across the country.
Similarly, buildings must be sized in proportion to the width of the
street. Low buildings do a poor job of defining streets, especially overly
wide streets, as anyone who has been on a postwar commercial highway strip
can tell. The road is too wide and the cars go too fast. The parking lots
are fearsome wastelands. The buildings themselves are barely visible -- that
is why gigantic internally lit signs are necessary. The relationship between
buildings and space fails utterly in this case. In many residential suburbs,
too, the buildings do a poor job of defining space. The houses are low; the
front lawns and streets are too wide. Sidewalks and orderly rows of trees
are absent. The space between the houses is an incomprehensible abyss.
new urbanism advances specific solutions for these ills -- both for
existing towns and cities and to mitigate the current problems of the
suburbs. Commerce is removed from the highway strip and reassembled in a
town or neighborhood center. The buildings that house commerce are required
to be at least two stories high and may be higher, and this has the
additional benefit of establishing apartments and offices above the shops to
bring vitality, along with extra rents, to the center. Buildings on
designated shopping streets near the center are encouraged to house retail
businesses on the ground floor.
A build-to line determines how close buildings will stand to the street
and promotes regular alignment. Zoning has a seemingly similar feature
called the setback line, but it is intended to keep buildings far away from
the street in order to create parking lots, particularly in front, where
parking lots are considered to be a welcome sign to motorists. When
buildings stand in isolation like this, the unfortunate effect is their
complete failure to define space: the abyss. In the new urbanism the
build-to line is meant to ensure the opposite outcome: the positive
definition of space by pulling buildings forward to the street. If parking
lots are necessary, they should be behind the buildings, in the middle of
the block, where they will not disrupt civic life.
Additional rules govern building height, recess lines according to which
upper stories may be set back, and transition lines, which denote a
distinction between ground floors for retail use and upper floors for
offices and apartments. (Paris, under Baron Haussmann, was coded for an
eleven-meter-high transition line, which is one reason for the phenomenal
unity and character of Parisian boulevards.)
In traditional American town planning the standard increments for lots
have been based on twenty-five feet of street frontage, which have allowed
for twenty-five-foot row houses and storefronts, and fifty-, seventy-five-,
and 100-foot lots for freestanding houses. Unfortunately, the old standard
is slightly out of whack with what is needed to park cars efficiently.
Therefore, under the new urbanism lot size will be based on the rod (sixteen
and a half feet), a classic unit of measurement. This allows for a minimum
townhouse lot of sixteen and a half feet, which has room for parking one car
in the rear (off an alley) plus a few feet for pedestrians to walk around
the car. The 1.5-rod townhouse lot permits two cars to park in the rear. The
two-rod lot allows for a townhouse with parking for two cars plus a small
side yard. Three rods allows for a standard detached house with on-site
parking in different configurations. The four-rod lot provides room for a
very large detached building (house, shops, offices, or apartments) with
parking for as many as ten cars in the rear. The issue of a standard
increment based on the rod is far from settled. Some new-urbanist
practitioners recommend an adjustable standard of twelve to eighteen feet,
based on local conditions.
The new urbanism recognizes zones of transition between the public realm
of the street and the semi-private realm of the shop or the private realm of
the house. (In the world of zoning this refinement is nonexistent.)
Successful transitions are achieved by regulating such devices as the
arcade, the storefront, the dooryard, the ensemble of porch and fence, even
the front lawn. These devices of transition soften the visual and
psychological hard edges of the everyday world, allowing us to move between
these zones with appropriate degrees of ease or friction. (They are
therefore at odds with the harsh geometries and polished surfaces of
The arcade, for instance, affords shelter along the sidewalk on a street
of shops. It is especially desirable in southern climates where both harsh
sunlight and frequent downpours occur. The arcade must shelter the entire
sidewalk, not just a portion of it, or else it tends to become an obstacle
rather than an amenity. Porches on certain streets may be required to be set
back no more than a "conversational distance" from the sidewalk, to aid
communication between the public and private realms. The low picket fence
plays its part in the ensemble as a gentle physical barrier, reminding
pedestrians that the zone between the sidewalk and the porch is private
while still permitting verbal and visual communication. In some conditions a
front lawn is appropriate. Large, ornate civic buildings often merit a lawn,
because they cannot be visually comprehended close up. Mansions merit
setbacks with lawns for similar reasons.
THE foregoing presents the "urban code" of the new
urbanism, but architectural codes operate at a more detailed and refined
level. In theory a good urban code alone can create the conditions that make
civic life possible, by holding to a standard of excellence in a town's
basic design framework. Architectural codes establish a standard of
excellence for individual buildings, particularly the surface details.
Variances to codes may be granted on the basis of architectural merit. The
new urbanism does not favor any particular style.
An architectural code establishes some fundamental unities of
design within which many personal tastes may be expressed, as in these
Drawing by Catherine Johnson
from James Howard Kunstler's book Home From Nowhere (Simon &
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
All rights reserved.
Nowadays houses are often designed from the inside out. A married couple
wants a fanlight window over the bed, or a little octagonal window over the
Jacuzzi, and a builder or architect designs the room around that wish. This
approach does not take into account how the house will end up looking on the
outside. The outside ceases to matter. This is socially undesirable. It
degrades the community. It encourages people to stay inside, lessening
surveillance on the street, reducing opportunities for making connections,
and in the long term causing considerable damage to the everyday
The new urbanism declares that the outside does matter, so a few simple
rules re-establish the necessary design discipline for individual buildings.
For example, a certain proportion of each exterior wall will be devoted to
windows. Suddenly houses will no longer look like television sets, where
only the front matters. Another rule may state that windows must be vertical
or square, not horizontal -- because horizontal windows tend to subvert the
inherent dignity of the standing human figure. This rule reinstates a basic
principle of architecture that, unfortunately, has been abandoned or
forgotten in America -- and has resulted in millions of terrible-looking
Likewise, the front porch is an important and desirable element in some
neighborhoods. A porch less than six feet deep is useless except for
storage, because it provides too little room for furniture and the
circulation of human bodies. Builders tack on inadequate porches as a sales
gimmick to enhance "curb appeal," so that the real-estate agent can drive up
with the customer and say, "Look, a front porch!" The porch becomes a
cartoon feature of the house, like the little fake cupola on the garage.
This saves the builders money in time and materials. Perhaps they assume
that the street will be too repulsive to sit next to.
Why do builders even bother with pathetic-looking cartoon porches?
Apparently Americans need at least the idea of a porch to be reassured,
symbolically, that they're decent people living in a decent place. But the
cartoon porch only compounds the degradation of the public realm.
In America today flat roofs are the norm in commercial construction. This
is a legacy of Modernism, and we're suffering because of it. The roofscapes
of our communities are boring and dreary as well as vulnerable to leakage or
collapse in the face of heavy rain or snow. An interesting roofscape can be
a joy -- and a life worth living is composed of many joys. Once Modernism
had expanded beyond Europe to America, it developed a hidden agenda: to give
developers a moral and intellectual justification for putting up cheap
buildings. One of the best ways to save money on a building is to put a flat
roof on it.
Aggravating matters was the tendency in postwar America to regard
buildings as throwaway commodities, like cars. That flat roofs began to leak
after a few years didn't matter; by then the building was a candidate for
demolition. That attitude has now infected all architecture and development.
Low standards that wouldn't have been acceptable in our grandparents' day,
when this was a less affluent country, are today perfectly normal. The new
urbanism seeks to redress this substandard normality. It recognizes that a
distinctive roofline is architecturally appropriate and spiritually
desirable in the everyday environment. Pitched roofs and their accessories,
including towers, are favored explicitly by codes. Roofing materials can
also be specified if a community wants a high standard of construction.
Architectural codes should be viewed as a supplement to an urban code.
Architectural codes are not intended to impose a particular style on a
neighborhood -- Victorian, neoclassical, Colonial, or whatever -- though
they certainly could if they were sufficiently detailed and rigorous. But
style is emphatically not the point. The point is to achieve a standard of
excellence in design for the benefit of the community as a whole. Is
anything wrong with standards of excellence? Should we continue the
experiment of trying to live without them?
Getting the Rules Changed
REPLACING the crude idiocies of zoning with true
civic art has proved to be a monumentally difficult task. It has been
attempted in many places around the United States over the past fifteen
years, mainly by developers, professional town planners, and architects who
are members of the new-urbanist movement. They have succeeded in a few
places. The status quo has remarkable staying power, no matter how miserable
it makes people, including the local officials who support it and who have
to live in the same junk environment as everybody else. An enormous
entrenched superstructure of bureaucratic agencies at state and federal
levels also supports zoning and its accessories. Departments of
transportation, the Federal Housing Administration, the various tax
agencies, and so on all have a long-standing stake in policies that promote
and heavily subsidize suburban sprawl. They're not going to renounce those
policies without a struggle. Any change in a rule about land development
makes or breaks people who seek to become millionaires. Ban sprawl, and some
guy who bought twenty acres to build a strip mall is out of business, while
somebody else with three weed-filled lots downtown suddenly has
I believe that we have entered a kind of slow-motion cultural meltdown,
owing largely to our living habits, though many ordinary Americans wouldn't
agree. They may or may not be doing all right in the changing economy, but
they have personal and psychological investments in going about business as
usual. Many Americans have chosen to live in suburbia out of a historic
antipathy for life in the city and particularly a fear of the underclass
that has come to dwell there. They would sooner move to the dark side of the
moon than consider city life.
Americans still have considerable affection for small towns, but small
towns present a slightly different problem: in the past fifty years many
towns have received a suburban-sprawl zoning overlay that has made them
indistinguishable from the sprawl matrix that surrounds them. In my town
strip malls and fast-food joints have invaded what used to be a much denser
core, and nearly ruined it.
Notwithstanding all these obstacles, zoning must go, and zoning will go.
In its place we will re-establish a consensus for doing things better, along
with formal town-planning codes to spell out the terms. I maintain that the
change will occur whether we love suburbia or not.
Fortunately, a democratic process for making this change exists. It has
the advantage of being a highly localized process, geared to individual
communities. It is called the charette. In its expanded modern meaning, a "charette"
is a week-long professional design workshop held for the purpose of planning
land development or redevelopment. It includes public meetings that bring
all the participants together in one room -- developers, architects,
citizens, government officials, traffic engineers, environmentalists, and so
on. These meetings are meant to get all issues on the table and settle as
many of them as possible. This avoids the otherwise usual, inevitably
gruesome process of conflict resolution performed by lawyers -- which is to
say, a hugely expensive waste of society's resources benefiting only
The object of the charette is not, however, to produce verbiage but to
produce results on paper in the form of drawings and plans. This highlights
an essential difference between zoning codes and traditional town planning
based on civic art. Zoning codes are invariably twenty-seven-inch-high
stacks of numbers and legalistic language that few people other than
technical specialists understand. Because this is so, local zoning- and
planning-board members frequently don't understand their own zoning laws.
Zoning has great advantages for specialists, namely lawyers and traffic
engineers, in that they profit financially by being the arbiters of the
regulations, or benefit professionally by being able to impose their special
technical needs (say, for cars) over the needs of citizens -- without the
public's being involved in their decisions.
Traditional town planning produces pictorial codes that any normal
citizen can comprehend. This is democratic and ethical as well as practical.
It elevates the quality of the public discussion about development. People
can see what they're talking about. Such codes show a desired outcome at the
same time that they depict formal specifications. They're much more useful
than the reams of balderdash found in zoning codes.
An exemplary town-planning code devised by
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and others can be found in the
ninth edition of Architectural Graphic Standards. The code runs a
brief fourteen pages. About 75 percent of the content is pictures -- of
street sections, blocks, building lots, building types, and street networks.
Although it is generic, a code of similar brevity could easily be devised
for localized conditions all over America.
The most common consequence of the zoning status quo is that it ends up
imposing fantastic unnecessary costs on top of bad development. It also
wastes enormous amounts of time -- and time is money. Projects are
frequently sunk by delays in the process of obtaining permits. The worst
consequence of the status quo is that it actually makes good development
much harder to achieve than bad development.
Because many citizens have been unhappy with the model of development
that zoning gives them, they have turned it into an adversarial process.
They have added many layers of procedural rigmarole, so that only the most
determined and wealthiest developers can withstand the ordeal. In the end,
after all the zoning-board meetings and flashy presentations and
environmental objections and mitigation, and after both sides' lawyers have
chewed each other up and spit each other out, what ends up getting built is
a terrible piece of sprawl equipment -- a strip mall, a housing subdivision.
Everybody is left miserable and demoralized, and the next project that comes
down the road gets beaten up even more, whether it's good or bad.
No doubt many projects deserve to get beaten up and delayed, even killed.
But wouldn't society benefit if we could agree on a model of good
development and simplify the means of going forward with it? This is the
intent of the traditional town planning that is the foundation of the new
Human settlements are like living organisms. They must grow, and they
will change. But we can decide on the nature of that growth -- on the
quality and the character of it -- and where it ought to go. We don't have
to scatter the building blocks of our civic life all over the countryside,
destroying our towns and ruining farmland. We can put the shopping and the
offices and the movie theaters and the library all within walking distance
of one another. And we can live within walking distance of all these things.
We can build our schools close to where the children live, and the school
buildings don't have to look like fertilizer plants. We can insist that
commercial buildings be more than one story high, and allow people to live
in decent apartments over the stores. We can build Main Street and Elm
Street and still park our cars. It is within our power to create places that
are worthy of our affection.
Illustration by Robert Crawford
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; Home From Nowhere; Volume 278, No.
3; pages 43-66.