The most striking change to one of the largest cities on the planet can be seen easily from the air. All its freeways have been turned into public spaces, their multiple lanes of traffic replaced with extensive linear parks. Down the centre of each of these parks run wide bus boulevards, protected cycling lanes and excellent walking paths. This network of urban trails connects each of the neighbourhoods so it’s possible to get nearly anywhere in the city on dedicated foot or bike infrastructure – although the comprehensive rail system is usually faster.
The transformation transcends the physical environment. A cultural shift has occurred and residents in general choose to live near where they work. Education has improved as well, with children walking or biking to quality schools close to where they live. Health has improved dramatically and people are living longer. Most people don’t own cars, and those who do usually only drive them as a hobby, since they’re relics of a bygone era.
This is the Los Angeles of the future.
It's certainly not the Los Angeles of today, the land of 20-lane interchanges and parking lots the size of football stadiums and mind-bending, soul-crushing, life-altering traffic. LA's seemingly brilliant plan half-a-century ago to re-engineer its urban environment for cars has become a global affliction. There are now 60 million new cars being added to the planet every year, and with those vehicles come more smog, toxic emissions and dependency on rapidly depleting resources. As we embrace the car, our cultures become more sedentary and rates of obesity and heart disease increase. Cars not only make our cities unhealthy, they also make our cities dangerous: 270,000 pedestrians are killed by cars every year.
To undo these decades of suburban propaganda is to essentially unravel the American Dream; one which has since travelled around the world. But there is a new dream. Walkable City author Jeff Speck said it best in his recent TEDCity2.0 talk: "Sustainability – which includes both health and wealth – may not be a function of our ecological footprint, but the two are deeply interrelated. If we pollute so much because we are throwing away our time, money, and lives on the highway, then both problems would seem to share a single solution, and that solution is to make our cities more walkable."
Walking is the simplest, most cost-efficient way to improve a city's economic and environmental viability, and it creates healthier, happier residents. Choosing walking can help designers build more inviting streets, and allow cities to prioritise their people over cars.
The campaign to make our cities more walkable begins in the virtual world. There are apps such as Walk Score, a tool which measures the distance to amenities such as restaurants, stores, and public transport, and tells you how “walkable” your location is. Walk Score has been gaining serious traction in the US real estate market by promoting walkability as a factor in choosing where to live. The site recently started featuring apartment rentals with Walk Scores prominently displayed – a different way to place value on what we pay in rent.
Car-free neighbourhoods are already a reality in places like Vauban, Germany, where the cars are banned and a tram to nearby Freiburg runs through the town. The Great City, planned for Chengdu, China, is even more ambitious, intended to house 80,000 people in a completely car-free centre with regional mass transit connections. Architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill estimate that residents will be able to walk anywhere in the city within 15 minutes.