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What should the next generation of cities look like?

How improving the design of our cities can lower emissions and increase equity

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Some of the most loved and memorable cities in the world share a key feature – high walkability. Whether it’s the enchanting paths of Venice, the historic streets of Kyoto, or the bustling crosswalks of New York, walkability can play a crucial role in how we perceive a city. However, despite this desire for walkability, many American cities still rely heavily on cars for transportation. One study from 2020 showed that about 87 percent of the passenger miles in the U.S. were driven in personal vehicles. This car-centric culture in America has had far-reaching effects on community, equity, sustainability, and climate change.

That culture is relatively recent, at least compared to some of those grand old cities. In the mid-20th century, the US passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, paving the way for the extensive interstate highway system that spans the nation today. Unfortunately, the planning and construction of these highways often targeted low-income neighborhoods, impacting minority communities that had already been subjected to discriminatory practices like redlining.

Redlining refers to denying or limiting financial services, such as loans or insurance, to certain neighborhoods or communities based on their racial or ethnic composition. Alvaro Sanchez, the Vice President of Policy at the Green Lining Institute, emphasizes the concrete history and connection between redlining and freeways. He states, “In the manual that the federal government published about how to implement redlining, it specifically names the construction of highways as a way to segregate groups that shouldn’t live together.”

As a result, these communities experienced further displacement and destruction. Today, communities that neighbor these highways or industrial sites face the dangers of a lower life expectancy, asthma, and cancer due to the nearby pollutants. And those existing challenges mean that facing newer risks, like those from climate change, is even harder. “It’s critical that we all come together to come up with designs and policies that address multiple challenges at the same time because communities are facing multiple impacts at the same time,” shares Sanchez.

By designing the next generation of cities around more efficient forms of transportation and away from cars, it could lower America’s dependency on them and thus lower the emissions expelled from them. Not only that, but government funding could instead go towards the needs of the community and less towards car infrastructure.

“A just transition is about moving from an extractive economy to an economy that actually answers to the needs of working-class communities and people” explains Riddhi Patel, the economic development coordinator for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. ​​To make this transition, there is a need for collaboration among urban planners, policymakers, and advocacy groups to promote more sustainable transportation options. This interconnection can be seen in how public transit played a significant role in reducing carbon emissions by saving sixty three million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018, equivalent to shutting down sixteen coal power plants for a year.

Addressing these large-scale challenges requires government level action. Kaniela Ing, the National Director of the Green New Deal Network, adds, “Individual actions alone aren’t the solution to the climate crisis: government investment is. We need to see government programs that invest in sustainability across society: in housing, transit, energy, food, and more. That’s what the Green New Deal is—a commitment to building a better world as we tackle climate change and create a new society that is not only regenerative but also free of the injustices of our present and past.”

The Green New Deal is a comprehensive plan that aims to address climate change and promote economic and social justice. It provides a transformative framework that focuses on reshaping urban environments by prioritizing sustainable transportation alternatives such as public transit, enhanced sidewalks, and bike-friendly infrastructure. By reducing reliance on cars, the Green New Deal seeks to mitigate the impacts of climate change while simultaneously improving accessibility and fostering more environmentally-friendly communities.

By working collectively, Americans can strive towards a future where walkable communities are the norm, fostering healthier, more connected, and environmentally responsible urban environments.