Sprawling Places

David Kolb

“A fresh and surprisingly hopeful contribution to our understanding of suburban life.”—Thad Williamson, coauthor of Making a Place for Community


"The central idea—to provide a critical analysis of new kinds of places, and to offer a defense of them against standard objections—is timely and interesting. Kolb makes effective use of the relevant philosophical and social science literature and provides numerous useful examples. Sprawling Places will find an audience among cultural theorists and analysts of popular culture, philosophers, architects, and urban designers and planners."
—William J. Mitchell, author of Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City

"Making better places involves more than just improving the architecture—it means being attentive to the social interactions, norms, and meanings generated by a given location. In Sprawling Places David Kolb employs this idea to help us assess and re-assess a variety of contemporary places, from theme parks to traditional suburbs to New Urbanist developments. Kolb asks us to move beyond totalizing critiques of suburban places, and instead evaluate places according to the level of complexity they exhibit and the kinds of social meanings and practices they promote. He shows how this framework can help us think not just critically but constructively about suburban places and how they might be improved by creative interventions, ranging from subtle changes in street-level details to larger-order policy reforms. Theoretically rich yet highly engaging, Sprawling Places offers a fresh and surprisingly hopeful contribution to our understanding of suburban life."
—Thad Williamson, coauthor of Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era

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People often bemoan the spread of malls, suburban strips, subdivisions, and other sprawling places in contemporary America. But are these places as bad as critics claim? In Sprawling Places, David Kolb questions widely held assumptions about our built environments.

Kolb agrees there is a lot not to like about many contemporary places, but to write them off simply as commodified “nonplaces” does not treat them critically. Too often, Kolb says, aesthetic character and urban authenticity are the focus of critics, when it is more important to understand a place’s complexity and connectedness. Kolb acknowledges that the places around us increasingly have banal exteriors, yet they can be complex and can encourage their inhabitants to use them in multiple, nonlinear ways. Ultimately, Kolb believes human activity within a place is what defines it. Even our most idealized, classical places, he shows, change over the course of history when subjected to new linkages and different flows of activity.

Engaging with the work of such writers and critics as Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, Karsten Harries, and Christian Norberg-Schulz, Kolb seeks to move discussions about sprawl away from the idea that we must “choose between being rooted in the local Black Forest soil or wandering in directionless space.” By increasing our awareness of complexity and other issues, Kolb hopes to broaden and deepen people’s thinking about the contemporary built environment and to encourage better designs in the future.

Page count: 280 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


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David Kolb is the author of several books, including Postmodern Sophistications. He is the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bates College.