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The Absence of Sidewalks in American Urban Design: A Historical Perspective

Walking through the streets of an Australian city, one is greeted with a network of sidewalks that invite pedestrians to explore their surroundings on foot. In stark contrast, many American cities seem almost hostile to walkers, with sprawling highways, endless suburbs, and a noticeable lack of sidewalks. This raises an intriguing question: why was America designed this way and what was the mindset behind such urban planning?

The Rise of the Automobile

To understand the absence of sidewalks in many American cities, one must first understand the historical context of the automobile’s rise. In the early 20th century, the automobile emerged as a symbol of freedom, progress, and modernity in the United States. Car ownership was not merely about transportation; it was a lifestyle. The booming automotive industry, led by giants like Ford and General Motors, heavily influenced urban planning. Cities were redesigned to accommodate cars, with wide roads, ample parking spaces and highways that connected burgeoning suburbs to urban centers.

The Influence of Suburbanization

The post-World War II era saw a dramatic shift towards suburban living. Government policies, such as the GI Bill, made homeownership accessible to millions of returning soldiers. The desire for a “better life” drove many families away from crowded urban centers to the newly developed suburbs. These suburbs were designed with the car in mind, featuring cul-de-sacs, wide streets and homes with garages. Walking became an afterthought, as daily life now revolved around driving. Schools, shopping centers, and workplaces were often miles apart, necessitating the use of cars.

Economic and Political Factors

Economic interests also played a significant role in shaping America’s car-centric infrastructure. The powerful automotive and oil industries lobbied for policies that favored road construction and car ownership. Public transportation systems, which once thrived in cities like Los Angeles, were dismantled or neglected in favor of building highways. This car-centric approach was further reinforced by federal funding priorities. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 allocated billions of dollars to create an extensive interstate highway system, cementing the car’s dominance in American life.

The Design Philosophy

The design philosophy that underpinned American urban planning in the mid-20th century prioritized efficiency, speed, and convenience. The sprawling layout of American cities, characterized by zoning laws that separated residential, commercial and industrial areas, made walking impractical. Urban planners and architects, influenced by the modernist movement, envisioned cities that were orderly, functional and geared towards mass car travel.

Contrasts with Australian Urban Design

In contrast, Australian cities developed with a different mindset. The emphasis on walkability, public transportation and mixed-use developments reflects a more holistic approach to urban living. Australian urban design promotes community interaction, environmental sustainability, and public health. Footpaths, parks and pedestrian-friendly streets are integral to city planning, making walking a natural and enjoyable mode of transportation.

The Consequences

The consequences of America’s car-centric design are evident today. Traffic congestion, air pollution, and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to public health crises, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health issues. The lack of footpaths and pedestrian infrastructure isolates communities, reduces social interaction and limits access to essential services for those without cars.

Is America Trying to Kill Its People?

While it might be hyperbolic to suggest that America is intentionally trying to harm its citizens, the unintended consequences of its urban planning decisions have undeniably negative impacts. The prioritization of cars over people has led to environments that can be detrimental to public health and community well-being. However, there is a growing recognition of these issues and many cities are now investing in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, bike lanes and public transportation to create more balanced, livable urban environments.

Making Changes in Our Cities

As citizens we have the power to demand changes in our urban environments. Here are some steps we can take to advocate for more footpaths and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure:

1. Attend City Council Meetings: Participate in local government meetings to voice your concerns and advocate for pedestrian infrastructure.

2. Join or Form Advocacy Groups: Collaborate with like-minded individuals and organizations that are pushing for urban planning reforms.

3. Engage with Local Politicians:

Write to or meet with local representatives to discuss the importance of footpaths and pedestrian-friendly policies.

4. Utilize Social Media:

Use social media platforms to raise awareness and gather community support for pedestrian infrastructure projects.

5. Participate in Public Surveys

and Forums:

Many cities conduct surveys and forums to gather public input on urban planning. Make sure your voice is heard.

6. Promote Success Stories:

Highlight examples of cities that have successfully implemented pedestrian-friendly designs to show what is possible.

The absence of sidewalks in many American cities is a legacy of historical, economic and political factors that prioritized the automobile. This design philosophy has led to significant public health and environmental challenges. In contrast Australia’s emphasis on walkability highlights the benefits of urban design that values pedestrian infrastructure. As American cities evolve there is hope that they will adopt more pedestrian-friendly practices creating urban spaces that prioritize the well-being of all residents.



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