Jane Holtz Kay calculated in her 1997 book, “Asphalt Nation,” that in less time than it takes you to read this sentence, Americans riding around in cars and trucks will dump another 180,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and thereby accelerate global warming and hasten the advent of catastrophic flooding in coastal cities like New York.
Ms. Kay, an architecture critic who died in Boston on Nov. 5 at 74, based her prediction on government statistics and well-established scientific evidence. Her book, subtitled “How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back,” proposed ways to reverse the environmental damage caused by suburban sprawl: by returning to the city, using public transit, living one’s daily life, as much as possible, within walking distance.But, like so many other messengers, Ms. Kay said she felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. People either believed they were “powerless to do things” about the looming disaster, she told an interviewer, or were angry at her for being such a Cassandra-like scold. “ ‘This is kind of of old stuff,’ ” she quoted them as saying. “So — ‘So what?’ ”
Ms. Kay wrote three books on conservation of natural resources and urban environments. “Lost Boston” (1980) was a love letter to the many architectural treasures demolished in her native city in the rush to build roads, malls and parking spaces, and an appeal to make future changes with the human biped in mind. With Pauline Chase Harrell, she made a similar appeal in “Preserving New England” (1986).
“Asphalt Nation,” considered her most ambitious book, offered a unified vision for saving the cities and the planet and achieving social harmony by overthrowing the cultural dominance of the internal combustion engine. “Here at the so-called top of the food chain,” she wrote, “the water we drink, the food we eat, the entire way we live, is corrupted by a toxic artifact. The car, its pollutants, its highways, its trips.”
The revered urbanist Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” said Ms. Kay’s book had “given us a profound way of seeing the automobile’s ruinous impact on American life.”