Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Slow Death of the Walkable City

As a bit of an urban planning enthusiast, I’ve often wondered how cities that predate widespread car-ownership can be so car-dependent nowadays. For example, I am from Chicago, a city that was booming well before the Model T hit the assembly line. Yet today, there are large swaths of the city that are, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible without a car or a ton of patience for public transit.

The fact is most cities that predate ubiquitous car-ownership were far more walk/bike/public-transit friendly than they are now. Their cityscapes were characterized by dense housing on small lots connected by narrow streets. People walked, biked, rode horses or took streetcars to get where they were going. Without cars, people had to live close to their work, stores, etc.

In the mid 20th century, much of this density was lost to make way for the car, a fact illustrated so well by these maps published by the University of Oklahoma’s Shane Hampton. He writes of the contrasting views:

60 years has made a big difference in the urban form of American cities. The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects. Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures. While the period did make way for impressive new projects in many cities, many of the scars are still unhealed.

Indeed, the pictures show cities eviscerated by highways. Semi-occupied lots fill the spaces where tightly packed housing once stood. Wide arterial roads replace narrow streets. It is a picture of sprawl.

What’s interesting is that many of the cities featured have experienced economic decline in the last 60 years. On the other hand, cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York City that did not undergo such profound transformations (not that people didn’t try), have remained economically vital.

As with many things, the answers to present and future problems can often be found in the past. The older pictures show that we know what to do, how to build and how to make cities vibrant, walkable and sustainable. If we can build that type of cities once, we can do it again…at least one can hope.

See more interactive maps on the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities website

Hat tip to Lloyd

  • Tim Domenico

    The walkable city is still alive and well in downtown areas all around the World – but in today’s World it can be very expensive..

    Due to economics I was car-less while attending a college in Downtown Denver. But, I had it made, I found a hotel where you could rent a room for $85 a month, which was two blocks from school and only a block from the parking garage where I found an evening job. It was at this job one night where I recognized Original Seven astronaut Wally Schirra checking out. We had a wonderful moment when I couldn’t remember his name, but surely remembered his face and smile.

    There was also a rice and meat fast food place in the same building, where you could get a decent meal for 75 cents. Yes,this was a while ago, during the 70s..

    Sound too good to be true? It was. The second month I was there a company bought the hotel and quadrupled the monthly rent.

    But for two months – I absolutely had it made.

    • IIlI

      wowza, $85 a month? what a bargain. even with inflation adjustment to i’d guess around $300 to $400 a month, that’s incredible.

  • Reeve

    Sad to see all those freeways. Minneapolis is definitely trying to progress. There is planning going on for a Streetcar that will run through Downtown and the Northeast Riverfront District. I hope my daughter and I will get to see it in the next decade … preferably sooner.

  • Maggie

    The black and white (before) photos have more life in them than the colour (after) ones.

  • WithheldName

    “Cities” died when walkability died. So did neighborhoods. So did families. How many Amber Alerts have you heard recently? How many commercials for Geico? Cars have become our mobile homes. They’re padded, scented, air conditioned, and music-filled. Life has moved from sidewalks and porches to parking lots and car seats. Cars are the #1 biggest mass consumer good industry in America. We’ve spent the last few generations dismantling every aspect of our built and mental environments so that we can “enjoy” life in cars. Scholars estimate that only 5% of the neighborhoods in America today are truly walkable. Are we going to tear down and rebuild Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Silicon Valley, Orlando, most of Los Angeles, half of the New York metro area, most of New Jersey, most of California, all of Long Island, most of Florida, most of Texas, and the rest of the 95% of the car-dependent wasteland that we’ve created? Are we going to bring back the streetcars? Are we going to tear down half the houses in America? Are we going to demolish most of the expressways in America? Are we going to eliminate most of the parking lots and parking garages? Even if we developed the desire and political and financial ability to do so…it would take generations to rebuild America.

  • IIlI

    i for one have always been anti-car because of a few reasons – health being number one (i am almost 40 and very healthy because of a lifestyle that focused on using physical energy to get from one place to another), followed by cheap costs (nyc mta unlimited rides are $120 a month in the best transit system in the world for any city), with no risk of theft damage or maintainence (for a vehicle). i can go on. otoh, i would absolutely love to own a car but the costs of ownership are just too high. what i can get by walking and using the mta for $120 a month far beats out having a car. at least in brooklyn new york and definitely manhattan. don’t even think of having a car in the city. best part about a walkable city is candy/grocery stores. right now, downstairs, there is a 24 hour dunkin donuts store below me. on that same block is a 24 hour fruit and vegetable store. two blocks away, a 24 hour rite aid drugstore is present. i can walk to these places in a blizzard. i don’t have to shovel out my car or wait for any transit. for all these reasons, a walkable city is far more preferable to a driveable one.