Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Death of Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation

See the obituary, "Remembering Jane Holtz Kay," in The Nation.

From the New York Times review of the book:

In her book's first section, ''Car Glut: A Nation in Lifelock,'' Kay, the architecture critic for The Nation, reports that more driving does not mean more mobility because the number and length of trips needed for everyday life are increasing; that the elderly and the young, who are unable to drive, have been transformed into virtual prisoners; that the United States gives automobiles at least seven times the subsidies it earmarks for public transportation; that improvements in emission controls have been canceled out by an increase in miles driven; that salt used on ice and snow causes trees and vegetation to wither; and that Americans are fat because they drive rather than walk.  ...

Kay's second section, ''Car Tracks: The Machine That Made the Land,'' explains how the automobile evolved from 1908, when Henry Ford introduced the Model T amid predictions that it would reduce pollution by replacing the horse, to 1954, when the United States became a net importer of oil, to the present, when Americans collectively spend eight billion hours each year stuck in traffic. The third section, ''Car Free: From Dead End to Exit,'' points toward a future when, Kay hopes, the front porch, the corner grocery and pedestrian-friendly streets will be the norm rather than the exception.

To her credit, Kay recognizes that the automobile is not the only culprit. She points out, for example, that Europeans have avoided many American problems not just because of high gasoline taxes and excellent public transportation systems but also because they regard land as a scarce resource to be controlled in the public interest rather than exploited by whoever happens to own it at a particular moment. Thus, European governments have traditionally exercised stringent controls over land development, and they have operated on the theory that the preservation of farms and open space is an appropriate national goal. In Dusseldorf, Germany, possibly the richest city in the world, truck farmers tend their crops within a couple of miles of the city's skyscrapers, not because alternative land uses would not yield a higher return, but because the law prohibits the very possibility of development.

Given that the review is by Kenneth Jackson, one of the leading urban historians of our time, he is critical, writing:

One wishes, however, that Kay had more effectively anticipated and countered the likely questions of the 40-million-member American Automobile Association and the other powerful elements of the highway lobby. What do current gasoline taxes, meager as they are, pay for? Who should pay for the construction and repair of local roads that serve residential areas? If cars are becoming cleaner and more efficient over time, why will pollution not take care of itself? Who gets the bill for the uninsured motorists who cause the innocent to live out their days in wheelchairs? Are there many instances or places where motorists subsidize the general population, as is the case in New York, with its high bridge and tunnel tolls? If so, what has been the result? Why should a driver who never uses buses or subways contribute to their support? Does not the fact that Americans have purchased 250 million vehicles constitute a kind of referendum that government officials should respect? Kay has performed an important service in putting the issue of transportation before a potentially large audience, but she has only continued the debate, not taken it to a higher level.

A lesson in the need to be thorough.  If, one of the goals you're writing for to move social change forward.

The obit mentions that she was one of the founders of WalkBoston, which is one of the best pedestrian advocacy groups in the U.S.  That's an important legacy in and of itself, but she did a lot more.  For example, I didn't realize she was also a preservationist, having authored two books, Lost Boston and Preserving New England, on the subject.

-- First chapter
-- Jane Holtz Kay website

She will be remembered.

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At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're going to write a book about how the car took over America, at least use a photo with two American cars, not two Swedish ones.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yep. The 300M cars in the US vs. the 250M in Europe might not be the complete reason why our urban landscapes are so different.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

an excellent book with really good points- sorry to see the author pass away

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous rg said...

Bummer. She was an excellent writer and a good voice for quality urbanism.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Nicholas Homyak said...

Having read The Geography Of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler One element still left out is the spread of litter & trash upon the American Landscapes, lots of it from drivers who simply through tossing debris from their vehicles favor the inside of their cars over the beauty & integrity of the land.In my short 64 years I have seen nothing but negative accumulative efforts caused by the culture of the automobile.


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