American Political Science and Urban Planning

The United States stands apart from the rest of the developed world in its political structure which has grown ever more unwieldy and unbending in its 237-year history.  The founders wrote that checks and balances should form the basis of legislation, and created three branches of government to ensure that no tyranny would limit the freedoms of its citizenry.  Those branches of executive, judicial, and legislative took the forms of the president, the Supreme Court, and congress, respectively, and indeed have substantially limited the power of any one branch.  However, as the country has matured in over two centuries of social and economic change, the government has grown enormous and less responsive to the needs of its people.  More importantly, money has taken over as the preeminent mover and shaker in the political processes in the United States.

 

The 1950’s and The Definitive Ending of Rational Planning

It was during the 1950’s that the domination of the automobile in the whole lexicon of American society became cemented into place when the president of the world’s largest car-making company, General Motors, was appointed secretary of defense!  Charles Wilson, the GM president, was instrumental in the selling of a gargantuan freeway network to congress and the country’s voting public by claiming a coast-to-coast freeway network was vital to national security.  That same year of 1953, a member of the DuPont family, which owned the largest share of General Motors, was appointed chief administrator of the federal highways.  As a result of this appointment, the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, the largest public works bill in history, was passed and the nation became locked into a perpetual cycle of tax-payer funded highway building, more driving, highway expansion, and a planning-model of building out from town centers as dictated by the enormous appetite for space cars demand.

Urban Sprawl, Pollution, and Social Ills

The development of American cities on an auto-centric, sprawling scale stands in sharp contrast to the advanced cities of the world, particularly those found in Western Europe.  The truly advanced cities, which are built for their human users in balance with accommodation for roads for cars, have fewer social and economic problems and greater benefits for their prosperity and long-term sustainability.  If American cities had balanced transit systems of the kind found in places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, perhaps our rates of obesity and unemployment would be lower.  If people in the United States lived in cities that did not rely solely on the car for getting around, but rather had integrated transit matrixes that supported higher and more concentrated economies, our citizens would have better access to jobs and non-work activities including more family and friends time. 

New York City- The City Others Look to For Inspiring Policy Change

This morning, a new mayor was sworn in to service for New York City, the nation’s largest municipality and the one many others look to for examples in policy creation and implementation.  The new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, has pledged to completely cut out pedestrian fatalities in the city in just ten years.  The previous mayor, democrat turned republican Michael Bloomberg, tried and failed to install congestion pricing on all incoming automobiles in the city.  He was successful, however, in overseeing a profusion of bike lane improvements, though compared to more advanced European cities with substantially higher rates of bike commuting, the city of New York still has a lot of room for improvement in terms of how its streets are dominated by the automobile.

Raising the Bar in New York for Sustainability in American Cities

Mayor DeBlasio has his work cut out for him if he is to cut pedestrian deaths on New York City streets.  His challenge is in reducing automobile traffic in the city, especially in Manhattan – since it is this borough that has the highest concentration of pedestrian-oriented building uses.  If he is to succeed where his predecessor Bloomberg failed he must make it substantially harder and less practical to drive both into and around the city.  Learning from some of the planning principles of people-friendly world cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm, American cities could become much more economically and socially healthy.  Smart planning and the deployment of fossil-free rail and rapid-bus transit in coordination with the extensive development required in coming decades to accommodate the rise in population by over 100,000,000 by 2040 can be the basis of the revving up of the nation’s economic engine.