Americans are great at creating spaces that serve our most immediate needs – even if that means sacrificing the needs of our grandchildren. But why haven’t we made it a priority to invest in long-term, sustainable urban development that will pay dividends for future generations?
Starting in the 1950s, American cities tore up their streetcar lines to prioritize and make room for the cars that were crowding city streets. It was this obsession with convenience for the automobile that caused intense and destructive change in American cities. Post-WWII, the Department of Commerce created the Federal Aid Highway Act, which destroyed Black neighborhoods for the sake of highways meant to bring suburban drivers into the city.
In the short-term, these policy choices made it easier to drive a car. In the long term, though, they deeply damaged the fabric of American urban and suburban life. Our dependence on and prioritization of the car has led to lasting effects, ranging from the loss of local businesses and the increase in food deserts to congestion, low air quality, loss of greenspace and the decline of walking.
American cities have a tendency to focus on the latest exciting technology. In the past, that meant the prioritization of the car over the pedestrian. Today, we can think of cities making short-term decisions with questionable long-term value. Some are offering up billions to compete to become the next Amazon headquarters, potentially jeopardizing the region’s tax base and straining infrastructure in the hopes of getting “good jobs.” Miami, meanwhile, is planning for a $6 billion, 20-foot-tall sea wall that will leave most of the city at the mercy of the waves, all to potentially protect the downtown. These are short-term solutions to the very long-term problems of sea level rise and increasing out-migration. But what we need to start focusing on is building resilient cities that are equipped to guarantee a good quality of life for those that come after us, even if that means making sacrifices in the short-term.
It’s a matter of protecting the quality of life for future generations. In 2015, Wales took an unprecedented step in adopting the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a piece of legislation obligating public bodies to consider the long-term impacts of their decisions and work towards a resilient, prosperous and “more equal” Wales. Such a commitment would go a long way in the U.S. in preparing for an uncertain, ever-changing future.
Because, like it or not, the future is coming. Global warming is set to warm cities across the world by 4.4 degrees Celsius – an effect that can be deadly, especially for vulnerable people dwelling in urban heat islands. Instead of destroying greenspace, we need to make our cities even greener, so we can sequester carbon and cool cities down. Of course, trees can’t grow in a day. But by improving greenspace and planting shade trees today, we can build a flourishing canopy that can protect our great-grandchildren from the heat we’ve created.
With global warming comes sea level rise, which threatens to bring a foot of water to the U.S. coastline by 2050. Rather than continuing to pay to rebuild the same houses in flood zones, city, state and national policymakers must find ways to protect and eventually retreat from the regions that will soon be underwater. Rather than building sea walls that destroy wetland habitats and worsen erosion on nearby shores, we need to prioritize the development of living shorelines that work with nature, not against it. We need to find ways to relocate essential communities and their infrastructure to keep people and property safe from rising seas.
To come back full circle, we’re still living in a car-dependent country while the world will likely run out of oil by 2052. When gasoline is gone, or prohibitively expensive, how will our grandchildren get where they need to go? How will our supply chains be able to feed and clothe the population? The answer, of course, is embedded in the problem: re-investing in the mass public transportation systems we’ve been neglecting since the 1950s, and wiring them to run clean.
The more we consider the future, the more questions arise. How can we build sustainable, local food systems for when disasters throttle the supply chain? How can we create meaningful, cohesive vocations for those automation makes redundant? How can we build a healthcare system that takes proper care of our increasing elderly population?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they are questions that merit moral, philosophical and environmental debate well above the pay grade of planners and policymakers. They are questions that force us to consider the lives and fates of Americans who will be born well after our own lifetimes – not to mention consideration for the habitats and creatures we share this planet with. But these are questions worth asking and responding to as we aim to build cities and communities not just for ourselves, but for all those that will come after.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.
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