a quick primer on why most US cities are terrible
issue 01 - urban sprawl, human-scale streets, public spaces, experiments
When I was a little kid, I loved exploring Taiwan’s night markets. In just one street, I could browse through comic books, munch on popcorn chicken, sift through stationery, make sugar lollipops, play arcade games, and eat stinky tofu. For 8-year old Chloe, this was a wonderland—pop-up shops, storefronts, and booths were crammed into a tiny street.
But in most American cities, we still need a car for everything. Want to grab coffee? Buy groceries? Go to work? Need a car. I felt restricted when I came back to my suburban city, cause I had to beg my parents to give me rides everywhere. I’ve always wanted to experience what it would be like to grow up in Asia, and the freedom it enabled. Subway stations allowed for spontaneous day trips, and I could walk to grab boba or meet up with friends anytime.
The car-centric lifestyle made me feel more distant from my city. Sure, cars are comfortable—but we sacrifice the ability to get to know our communities deeply. I go to the same restaurants, the same stores, the same roads. It’s weird that I’ve lived in my city for 7 years, but I rarely get to meet people outside of school.
If this continues, we have a grim future. Physical spaces shape everything we do: how we interact, how we form friendships, how we have fun, how we eat, and how we sleep. It’s time we take our cities back, and make them places we truly love to live.
How do we do this? To start, let’s get some context about how this way of living became popular:
After 1945, Americans mass-migrated to suburban areas. Owning a home, raising a family, and living in a safe area was the American Dream. Privacy was a commodity, and we were hungry for it. Fenced yards, gated communities, walled backyards became the norm. This physical separation between groups naturally resulted in scattered communities, and altered how we interacted with our neighbors.
I think streets do a good job representing how suburban areas make us more distant.
Take this street in Cartagena, Colombia for example. See how close the balconies are to each other? Neighbors can see each other brewing their morning coffee, reading the newspaper, or feeding their dogs.
In comparison, let’s see the average street in America…
Yikes. Notice how much larger it is compared to Colombia’s street? It’s ugly too—the street is solely for transportation.
Columbia’s streets allow neighbors to observe each other’s delightful, daily occurrences. Our relationships with others are seeded, tendered, and grown in an intimate environment. I’d even argue that it helps us become more empathic and understanding of one another, because we see each other out of the usual interaction context.
But when streets are sprawled, we can’t roam or interact with our surroundings because we’re forced to drive. Imagine walking through 3 busy intersections and crossing 3 mega Walmart parking lots just to get coffee. It’s no wonder why we opt for cars every time.
This sprawl discourages us from experiencing serendipitous moments that come from walking down mysterious lanes, exploring back alleys, and getting lost in winding streets. People love this stuff. There’s a reason why the most popular tourist destinations (Paris, London, Rome, Tokyo, Greece) are all walkable: people love exploring cities on foot.
In contrast, we use Google Maps to navigate our cities by car, going from point A to point B as quickly as possible at 40+ mph. Our cars impose a physical barrier between us and the outside world. Our cars force us to view transportation as just “a way to get somewhere”. I long for a city that embraces human-scale transportation options, like e-bikes, Lime scooters, and skateboards, which fully immerse me in the complex urban environment.
Obviously, rewiring an entire city to become walkable is a long-term project. But, there are practical ways we can repurpose our streets right now, to enrich our communities.
Widen sidewalks so cars only have one lane. Then, extra space can be given to restaurants, so they can offer patios to customers. Or a new, quaint cafe booth can be set up.
What about a nice plaza to replace that ugly parking lot? Neighbors can organize food festivals, live band nights, and movie sessions. My city recently organized a festival where local restaurants could showcase their cuisines and advertise their business.
Greenery. Add trees for shade so people are encouraged to meet-up, flowers for aesthetics, and bushes for sectional divisions.
More articles on how we can repurpose streets!
Cars take up way too much space in cities. New technology could change that. (Great piece to visualize the space that cars take)
Reclaiming city streets for people. Chaos or quality of life?
The next thing we have to tackle is the layout, architecture, and design of the outside. Our public structures have a huge, subconscious impact on our thoughts, habits, default mood levels, and wellbeing. For instance, if a city has more parks, hikes, and greenery infused within local neighborhoods, I’d probably be more likely to spend more time outside. Maybe I’d become a bit more environmentally conscious (essentially, blending the outside lifestyles I observe into my personal life). Aesthetics play a tremendous role on how we feel when we’re outside the house.
But right now, an unbelievable amount of our time is spent indoors:
The North American population is approximately 80% urbanized and spends almost 90% of the time indoors. — National Library of Medicine
That’s scary. But it’s not surprising, considering most public spaces in our cities are kind of ugly. If cities were beautiful by design, people would be encouraged to spend time outside of their homes, making cities more lively. After all, displaying the life of a city in the open makes our cities home.
We could place conversation pits in the open, instead of private spaces, to create meet-up spots for local clubs and to encourage serendipitous interactions.
Recently, I’ve also been following a project called The Bentway. They’re building spaces that allow us to play in public, reminding us of carefree times from childhood ❤️
We don’t necessarily need infrastructure to cultivate lively communities. Check out Retro Rolla—it’s a roller skate rental pop-up in Toronto. Friends can explore the Fort York neighborhood while roaming around in retro-style skates!
The best time to reclaim our cities from an ugly, car-first philosophy was 70 years ago. The second best time is right now. Car-centric development has made it insanely difficult for us to get to know our neighbors and explore our communities. We shouldn’t simply live with the consequences :)
Some Further Reading:
Freethink: Futuristic Copenhagen architecture builds on water
Culdesac: 11 Rules For Buying An Ebike, And The 11 Ebikes To Buy Now
Devon Zuegel: We Should be Building Cities for People, not Carrs
Thanks for reading :) My Twitter DMs are always open—would love to hear any thoughts/feedback
ugh tysm for this. in the back of my mind there was always something about my town that had always bothered me but i never really thought of it actively. this honestly put it perfectly wow