For the last few nights I have stayed in places that have no sidewalks and very little urban infrastructure. The place was staying at has a walk score (a measure of walkability to transportation, work, stores, etc.) of zero (out of 100)! Which means I can’t walk to anything without risking my life being hit by an automobile. Both of these places are on the outer perimeters of cities and are now growing fast. The problem is they are being built with a suburban mindset by individuals and private land developers with little concern for the future. The roads are narrow and feature more dead ends than intersections. Sidewalks are nonexistent and the notion of public transportation would unintelligible here. You might be saying, “so what?” The reason this matters is that cities are rising up out of older suburbs, but they are not great cities.
Land developers are buying up and building out land around cities faster than cities can plan out their growth. Requisite traffic studies are performed in order to give developers the results they seek. We end up with places that have a lot of buildings, cars, and people but no sense of city. There is little sense of community, human contact is rare, and congestion and infrastructure failure become the norm. The built environment directly contributes to the lack of human interaction and a sense of place.
Cities all over the world are growing at unprecedented rates. As the urban core fills to capacity, urban growth will spread into the suburbs and exurbs. This is not a new trend for the larger cities of the world. We can look at Brooklyn in New York or Anaheim (and much of Orange County and the Inland Empire) near L.A. as examples. This trend is now happening in medium and smaller cities. The transition to increased urbanization goes much smoother if the suburbs and exurbs are planned well (with sidewalks, connecting roads, dense and accessible commercial districts). When we think of Brooklyn, we think of it as very much a part of the New York tapestry. Other suburbs that are fast becoming boomburbs (i.e. Mesa, Arizona) are now becoming denser and require better urban planning.
We need better foresight in building suburbs and exurbs that are designed to become great urban neighborhoods over time. Governments need to take ownership of laying out urban grads rather than selling huge tracts of land to commercial developers. If we build our cities like we build suburbs we can expect more gridlock, wasted infrastructure, and automobile dependency.Urban density is far more livable and sustainable than suburban density.