America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire

By Mark L. Gillem

University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 384 pp., $24.95 paperback.

Wasteful American development patterns don’t end at the nation’s borders. They extend overseas, in the form of US military bases plagued by the same flaws found in our conventional, automobile-dependent suburbs. The nation’s military outposts need to be rethought, not least because they generate friction between the US and the host countries, says Mark Gillem, a former active-duty Air Force officer who now teaches architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Oregon.

Gillem, who was among the first to advocate applying New Urbanism to military bases in the US — his “Housing in the New Millennium” and “A Blueprint for Housing with Heart” were published by Defense Communities magazine in 1997 — portrays the situation overseas as a cultural and aesthetic calamity. “Over fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the United States still operates 766 permanent overseas sites, from small intelligence sites to large air bases,” he reports. During fiscal year 2006, these sites housed nearly 600,000 soldiers, civilian employees, and family members. In most instances, the overseas posts failed to use land economically, even in countries desperately short of land, and they borrowed only the most superficial architectural cues from their locales.

The book takes its name from “America Town,” a military “camptown” east of Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, where US soldiers are supplied by the Defense Department with what Gillem sees as a sorry mix of “bars, nightclubs, cafes, shops, and homes.” The main target of his wrath, however, is not so much the camptowns, where soldiers spend their off-hours in taverns and brothels, as the more “normal” base environments — places that squander available land by reproducing the low-density, segregated-use patterns associated with contemporary American suburbs.

Suburbs abroad
Gillem has visited nearly every major US Air Force base abroad since 1989, and he captures in sharp detail their mostly nondescript buildings and the thinking that produced them. The bases, he says, exhibit seven key suburban attributes. They are, in his words, auto-focused, abundantly paved, widely spaced, extensively lawned, increasingly franchised, clearly segregated (by use), and haphazardly ordered. Their heavy consumption of land — for low-density development such as single-story buildings and parking lots — contrasts sharply with the intensive mix of uses and the careful land conservation that many of the host countries practice immediately outside the American compounds.

Some military-sponsored sprawl is attributable to the yearning of overseas Americans for large houses, ballparks, and other amenities. Military families, it is often claimed, want access to US restaurant franchises, a big-box retail emporium, and housing resembling that of a conventional suburb so that they can feel at home no matter where they’re stationed. Even if there’s some truth in that assessment, Gillem insists that the military’s imposition of such excess-ridden development practices on land in other countries amounts to arrogance — for which Americans will pay.

He suggests, in any event, that development decisions “are fueled less by an individual soldier’s desire than by the collusion between corporate America and the military’s leadership.” He decries the military’s reliance on big private companies to do most of the planning for the overseas bases and to produce most of their housing. Forthright about naming names, Gillem reports that the military has contracted with some of America’s biggest builders, including Hunt Building Corp., Clark Realty, and Forest City.

But in implying that thoughtful planning cannot be expected from such corporate giants, he edges into questionable terrain. Surely, as a licensed architect and a certified planner, Gillem knows that Forest City has worked on domestic projects (like Stapleton, in Denver) that are meant to produce compact, mixed-use, transit-accessible communities. Presumably he knows that Clark Realty is involved in well-publicized new urbanist military housing ventures, like the CNU Award-winning Fort Belvoir redevelopment in northern Virginia.

Are these firms, or others, making no equivalent progress overseas? How can collaboration with the private sector deliver attractive, responsibly planned communities at some stateside bases, yet perpetuate America’s worst postwar patterns in other parts of the world? Gillem has written a provocative and welcome book, but some things are missing. America Town doesn’t seem to capture the whole picture.