by Jacob Rodriguez
To observe a city is to point a mirror at its people. We, as humans, are shaped by our surroundings and there is no surrounding more prominent than where we call home. Parking lots that sprawl to the horizons; buildings that scrape the skies; roads that go on forever. While this all may bode well for our internal economic infrastructure and ensuring that our Amazon packages get delivered on time it is important to visualize the cultural precedence it sets for the modern American and how it affects the psyche of our population as a whole. Where we go and what we see; the things we touch and feel; These all affect our behaviors and our perceptions of the natural world. How we interpret our surroundings determines our being, it’s human instinct.
The average, working American will walk between 85 and 87 miles a year, outside of extraneous athletic activity or regular exercise. It is only when compared to the average European, which is clocking in at about 237 miles yearly, that the plain statistic manifests itself into an alarming disparity between health and general well-being for the average U.S. resident. The reality becomes more apparent when you ponder over the last time you walked to get groceries, or took your bike to school, or had a nice, calm picnic in a public park. For the majority of U.S. residents, food and grocery stores are distant, bikes are for the trails, and public parks are accommodations for vagrants.
The point is that human-centered urbanity is of the past, a lost art, so much so that the words themselves have grown oxymoronic. We have, instead, grown accustomed to our lives between buildings and the scent of fresh diesel in the mornings, our days begin with the road and end back in our gridded residential homes far away from civilization where we await the next morning just to do it all over again.
The Car Crisis
Car is king. If you live in a major (even semi-major) metropolitan city in the United States your automobile is the access point for all of your needs and necessities. Why is this? The simple answer is that our grid promotes it.
Way back when our cities were just being born and beginning to grow legs, the early American planners implemented what we have come to recognize as the U.S. Grid System in order to maximize efficiency and support a rapidly growing population of U.S. citizens and foreign migrants. Our grid is essentially the layout of our city spanning everything from electricity and power distribution to the road layouts. New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, when looking at these grids a clear pattern emerges. Our American grids look as though they have been auto-generated onto the surface of the planet by extraterrestrials rather than being instances of nuanced human creation that have matured and altered over centuries of use.
Our miniature gridded blocks are nice to look at from an aerial view, but they make our lives more difficult in the long run. Lengthy, straight, narrow streets comprising of up to 6 lanes and more don’t exactly encourage friendly pedestrian strolls or create a comfortable, soothing urban environment. With an average American worker commute time of 27.6 minutes, our grid has only made it more difficult to access many of our routine destinations. The reality is it’s just easier to drive. American families incur the cost of having two to three automobiles a year (depending on family size, of course) to ensure they have a source of transportation to get to their job on time or pick up the kids from school at a reasonable hour. When a population becomes dependent on their own sources of transportation what is left behind is a dwindled husk of a public service network called public transport. It is irrelevant in the American workers day-to-day life and nonexistent in American culture. Public transport is efficient, cheaper than paying for your average family’s two vehicles, and mitigates most troubles associated with road reliance. An improvement in this sect could prove nicely in helping mitigate not only long commute times but also in reducing anthropogenic sources of pollution and waste coming as a result of our driving culture. Driving isn’t bad, but it is wildly unnatural.
Additionally, a direct correlation between city livability and the absence of a grid exists when comparing American cities to others. When observing global city livability rankings, usual suspects such as Zurich, Vienna, or Melbourne are consistently listed (among others) as having a score above 95 out of 100 on the city livability score index establishing them as highly livable and efficiently planned civilizations. The common trend amongst the most livable cities in the world is that none of them have a domineering or rigid grid design system comparable to the one present in the United States. No American city has been able to crack the top ranks, with the most livable major city in the U.S. considered to be San Francisco with a score of 65.
Our ever-increasing car reliance has had devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences. While generalizations are dangerous and usually biased, the true nature of the United States city livability issue lies in the statistics and facts. When compared to other first world countries world-wide, the U.S. has disproportionately higher motor vehicle accident and mortality rates hovering from 35,000 to 40,000 fatalities yearly or an average of 11.7 deaths per 100,000 people. Adverse environmental effects have also taken precedence as suburban sprawl and the expansion of the road based grid has disrupted natural environments and eradicated many regional geographic features or characteristics. Furthermore, cities are more susceptible to flooding due to the sheer influx of pavement that is used on our roads that limits the natural filtration of water, and restricted air flow as a result of the rigid and perpendicular street designs within many metropolitan centers has caused surges in heat and humidity throughout the same metropolitan areas. Change and adaptation are essential elements of human nature, and unless the rigid and commanding nature of our grid system adapts and revolutionizes to better suit our needs and necessities as people, the adverse effects will always outweigh the positives when it comes to urban design and planning.
While our grid dictates the placement and design layout of our cities, our zoning dictates where we live and work within that grid. The efficient allocation of residential and commercial developments are pivotal to the survival of a city, a delicate balance is required to ensure stability.
Why is the cost of living so high in New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco? There simply has just not been enough resources allocated to our residential zoning systems. Citizens pay increased prices for housing that is limited only to commute to commercial zoning districts on the other side of town where they must work and complete most of their routine tasks. Moreover, in order to participate in this process, citizens must own and be able to operate a personal vehicle legally and efficiently. Without proper infrastructure for public transit, urban issues such as elevated traffic, increased pedestrian hazard, and poor air quality have taken root and plagued American cities.
So how did United States zoning and infrastructure get to this point? The fact of the matter is: it’s more lucrative to build commercial properties. Developers will want to gear their efforts toward building profitable offices, retail stores, medical centers, public shopping malls and the municipalities are willing to give it to them. For this reason, affordable and accessible housing has grown scarce. Even the majority of developers and investors interested in the development within the residential zoning arena are inclined to construct luxury condominiums or “McMansions” that are more likely to turn an easy profit which, in turn, has only further alienated normal, middle-class city residents and established a dangerous precedence of profit over people.
So what’s a solution? Allowing for more mixed-use zoning and developments in our cities. Mixed-use zoning is essentially allowing for the construction of both residential and non-residential developments in the same areas. This, in turn, helps maximize efficiency in terms of reducing travel and commute times, allows for a more sustainable and compact utilization of land, and generally provides more affordable housing opportunity for citizens in need of cost efficient homes and easy access to day-to-day resources (i.e. grocery stores, retail shops, local businesses, public transport, etc.).
Take, for example, the urban zoning maps of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Bristol, United Kingdom while keeping in mind the fact that both share similar population sizes and generally similar geography. Any zones highlighted in bright yellow, orange, or brown are residential zones within the city of South Milwaukee while the red and dark pink are considered the business and commercial zones. It is almost difficult to see the financial and commercial zones due to the sea of residential zoning that the city has planned out which has shot up in-city living prices, traffic hotspots are peppered in and throughout the major commercial and business zones, and jobs, along with public transit, have only grown progressively more out of reach for native Milwaukeeans living within what could be described as an “inefficient” urban plan. Comparatively the zoning and land use map for Bristol (UK) gives insight into a very different, almost opposite, approach to planning and city design with the majority of the inner city being mixed use zoning. While the residential areas (denoted in gray) are still large and encompassing, they are counterbalanced by a more affordable inner city due to the availability of both residential and commercial real estate which grants the inner city population more opportunity for living from a cost efficient standpoint and having walking access to most of their necessities. Moreover, even throughout the spanning residential communities small sections of red are visibly dispersed within the gray areas allowing for residents in the residential only zoning to have easier access to commercial and mixed use developments.
While both Milwaukee and Bristol share significant residential areas, Bristol allows for an overall more efficient city plan and design through their successful implementation of mixed use zoning throughout the various population densities in the city which Milwaukee severely lacks. What is demonstrated through this comparison is a common trend throughout much of the United States. Developers understand the implications to developing mixed use zones, getting development and building approval is more difficult, limited profits are more of a possibility and in a society that has only grown more and more to value profit above all else, the payout just hasn’t matched the risk the developers are willing to incur to create well designed, honest cities.
While the generalization may be too general in regards to developer interest in the United States, as not to say there aren’t any developers not motivated by profit, the truth lies in the maps. To create mixed use development opportunities is to allow for the “human-centered urbanity” previously mentioned to take hold. By removing the necessity of owning and operating a vehicle at one’s own cost, through the implementation of these areas, urbanists and planners have been able to put cities back in the hands of the people, for the people.
A Person in their Surroundings
Our behaviors and our sensations are greatly influenced by our surroundings and our environments; believe it or not, our cities and communities play a crucial role in the maintenance of our mental health and well-being. A city’s design and implementation should have the principles of humility, comfort and efficiency at their center.
Good urbanism takes into consideration how the resident perceives themselves in their surrounding, by putting forth effort in assuring residents are being positively stimulated in their environment. This manifests itself in several ways, mainly: by being proponents of city walkability, making commercial and working districts accessible to residents living throughout varying city densities, and maintaining the critical and delicate balance between profit and integrity. It is only through the implementation of integrity and honesty in urban development that the idea of “human-centered” urbanity will be popularized and properly executed in the United States.
It is by allowing oneself to look at urban development through the lens of civil service, in lieu of business opportunity, that the true purpose and reasoning becomes apparent. In reflection, vanity through the objective of monetary gain is the sole suppressant of progress and cultural advancement in our cities. By allowing ourselves to become further removed from our urban centers we have continually damaged our own cultural and societal infrastructures and become advocates for our own detriment. True standard of living is not defined by our access to material wealth, rather by our access to the ideas and cultures that live within our urban environments.