What if you were able to commute to work, dine out, attend class, shop for necessities, and return home after a long day, all without ever needing to step foot in a car?
For most of us here in America, such a lifestyle may seem like an unattainable dream. But for those who live in urban European or Asian cities, this practice of strolling from place to place is a way of life. This begs the question: what is it that makes walkable communities more prevalent in these regions compared to the United States?
The most obvious answer that comes to mind is the age in which these cities were constructed. Take, for example, the city of Venice. Designed over 1500 years ago, the city was built long before any significant development in transportation technology took place. Visitors today must leave their vehicles in a park outside of the city when visiting, making it a perfect example of a modern community that functions completely without the use of automobiles.
Contrast this with the modern American city, built specifically with the lucrative personal automobile industry in mind. Our transportation sector has become the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is hardly surprising given the nearly 290 million cars currently in use on US roads. (Environmental Protection Agency). Even more concerning is the fact that 58% of these auto emissions can be attributed to light-duty vehicles, which include the passenger cars that millions of Americans use for daily commutes and grocery runs.
This trend shows no sign of stopping, with the UN projecting that by 2050, it is expected that 68% of the world’s population will live in urbanized areas. And considering current unsustainable patterns of population growth and development, health professionals and urban planners alike have begun to search for a solution that meets the needs of both the individual and the city's infrastructure. Enter the phrase “walkable community”.
The benefits of an automobile-independent community extend well beyond emission reductions. In her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by urban sociologist Jane Jacobs argues that a city’s walkability can offer a range of mental health benefits. With our lives becoming increasingly isolated due to factors such as time spent commuting in cars or sitting at desks, mental conditions such as depression and anxiety are becoming more prevalent. When confined to a car, for instance, the only form of communication is often through auditory media, which limits opportunities for social interaction with neighbors. This can result in a sense of isolation. In contrast, walkable cities facilitate more organic communication and connections, leading to better community cohesion.
This is on top of the obvious physical health benefits, which studies have proven to show that rates of obesity and diabetes are lower in more walkable neighborhoods, along with citizens weighing a marginal amount less than those in automobile-dependent areas (Science Daily, 2016). It’s no surprise that this concept of city planning proves so effective, and yet the real question is why we were so eager here in America to move away from this model in the first place. Some may point to the advent of the suburb amid the post-war consumer craze of the 1950s, while others go as far as even to blame the fuel and automotive industry as a whole.
Like most things in this world, change takes its time, but is still possible. As we look to the future of our cities, it's crucial that we take the responsibility now to prioritize walkable communities and public spaces for the generations to come. By doing so, we can create more sustainable, people-focused neighborhoods that offer numerous benefits to both physical and mental health, emission reductions, and better community cohesion.
Every one of us can play a part in advocating for a more walkable and sustainable future. Whether it's through voting, presenting ideas to local governing bodies, supporting local firms that hold the vision, or simply choosing to walk or bike instead of drive, we can all make a difference. Here at AGD, we want our projects to focus on the wellbeing of both the community and individual, hoping to build a future where neighborhoods are more connected, healthy, and environmentally conscious.
Although most cities here in the U.S. were conceived in a time when the automobile industry dominated city infrastructure, we still have the power and awareness to change this. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for change in many aspects of our lives, and we’ve already begun seeing significant changes towards walkable communities in spaces such as outdoor dining. United as one, let's carry this momentum together to create a future where walking from place to place is not just a dream, but a reality accessible to everyone.
Written by Luke Soule
“68% Of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas by 2050, Says Un | UN Desa Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html#:~:text=News-,68%25%20of%20the%20world%20population%20projected%20to%20live%20in,areas%20by%202050%2C%20says%20UN&text=Today%2C%2055%25%20of%20the%20world's,increase%20to%2068%25%20by%202050.
Dudley, David. “The Power of Car-Free Venice.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 17 Jan. 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-17/the-power-of-car-free-venice.
EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
“Rates of Obesity, Diabetes Lower in Neighborhoods That Are More Walkable.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 24 May 2016, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160524124052.htm.
“Review: 'the Death and Life of Great American Cities,' by Jane Jacobs.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/21/books/review/jane-jacobs-death-and-life-great-american-cities.html.