Reclaiming our streets, reducing emissions, & rediscovering places: Why we should never stop walking and where it will take us

“Today we begin to see that the improvement of cities
is no matter for small one-sided reforms:
the task of city design involves the vaster task of rebuilding our civilization.”

In the Culture of Cities, early urbanist, Lewis Mumford, wrote of urban planning and its relations with problems in society. A poorly designed city is assumed to be detrimental to the quality of man and civilization itself. He critiques sprawl and argues that the planning of cities are more successful when an organic relationship is adopted between people and their living spaces. Although his statements may be bold, it has everything to do with the issues we face today. The role of walkability in a world that cannot stop driving is that it can solve some today’s most pressing issues. Throughout this blog, it has been known that if a city gets walkability right, the rest will follow; get people walking and the city will start to see improvements in the quality of its health, wealth, and sustainability.

Reclaiming Our Streets
Formative to the planning of the current American city, the automobile has additionally brought a wealth of independence; mobility increased convenience and people were at the leisure of personal cars. What came next was sprawl, which has severely blemished the American landscape; urban populations dwindled as more people made the decision to move further out, segregation grew as neighborhoods amassed people of similar socio-economic households, and obesity has threatened the health of many as walking has become a rarity.
At what point did the pedestrian become forgotten? It was around the 1970’s that Portland began to deviate from the rest of the country. While Portland was investing in roads in favor of non-motorized transport, every other city in America was investing in infrastructure for personal cars. It was then that Portland established an urban growth boundary that prevented what the rest of the country was experiencing, which is sprawl. It is about time that we reclaim our downtowns and the patchwork of streets that connect networks of people. Containing sprawl and centralizing the places we live and thrive in can finally mean that we are ready to reintroduce walkability into our lives. Only then can we truly have a chance at reclaiming our streets and ultimately resolving problems our society is confronted with today.

Reducing Emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions threaten the health of people and the earth. In order to mitigate its effects on global climate change, it is crucial to understand the implications human activity has on the earth. Global greenhouse gas emissions are divided into three main sectors – energy, transport, and manufacturing & construction. The mapping of carbon tons per household shows heated areas over suburban regions and cooler areas over urban cities. According to a UC Berkeley study in 2014, the average carbon footprint of urban households is fifty percent below the national average, while suburban households make up twice the national average. Part of this can be attributed to denser housing and investments made in infrastructure for cleaner transportation. What makes an urban system operable is the way people move and go about their daily routines. The cleanest way of moving is by walking. Thus, by relying less on motorized transport, walkable cities become the most health and environmentally conscious cities.

Rediscovering Places
Danish urbanist, Jan Gehl, has been studying the psychology of cities for nearly fifty years. He argues that although we do evolve as a civilization, we all remain as homo sapiens. No matter how much we adapt, we still have the same aspirations. That is why cities such as Rome and Venice have worked and are still working. They were cities established before the birth of the automobile; they were established for people. Try making your way through Venice with a car and see how far that will take you until you hit water. Walkability is nothing new – it is a means of transport that has stood the test of time. Learning from cites such as Venice, we are able to understand how people use cities, streets, and public spaces. Do the same for cities back in the states – see how people use and move through cities. So much of our cities are waiting to be unraveled. Remember the people and the memory of the place will come after.

Why Walkability
Writings on the American city were covered through the work of Jane Jacobs. Her philosophy was pivotal in changing how urban planners viewed their role in an age of massive sprawl. Fast forward a couple of decades where we are met by Jeff Speck. Going a step further than Jacobs, Speck challenges urban planners to alter the way the rest of the country views their role in an age where we are continuing to sprawl. At this point, we do not need to rethink the way we move. Many of us have never given up on the idea of walkability; it is in our nature. There is agency in walkability and it is as ripe of a time as any that we see that there be changes to be made. People have always been the biggest supporters of cities; get enough of us involved and the politicians will start to reciprocate.

Brammer, Mikki. “Q&A: Jan Gehl on Making Cities Healthier and the Real Meaning of Architecture.” Metropolis Magazine, 11 Aug. 2015.
Chapter 4: Sustainable Urban Transport. Shanghai Manual – A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century. United Nations.
Robert Sanders. “Suburban Sprawl Cancels Carbon-footprint Savings of Dense Urban Cores.” Berkeley News. University of California Berkeley, 09 July 2015.
Song, Lily. “Jan Gehl on the Politics of Transforming Cities.” Planetizen, 28 Sept. 2016.


One thought on “Reclaiming our streets, reducing emissions, & rediscovering places: Why we should never stop walking and where it will take us

  1. randypeppler December 18, 2016 / 4:36 pm

    This is really good, Yvan. I need to go to Portland sometime and see what it’s like. Do you think there’s any hope for OKC? I feel like the city has tried at times with some of the MAPS projects, but it will only really happen in pockets, like Midtown or Bricktown. 40 out of 40


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