Who are cities made for?

Photo courtesy of Dani Sisson, Student Publications

They are not made for you. They are not made for me, either.

While cities may be made more for one person over another based on their respective race, gender, and socioeconomic background, there is a larger overarching division that exists, and it is not between different people, although it surely exacerbates the divisions that already exist.

If you are scrolling through satellite images on Google Earth, you will quickly see what I mean. The urban landscape is scarred by the long stretches of freeways and asphalt deserts where on any given day hundreds of thousands of private vehicles may sit.

Take another look, and you then may notice the towering corporate buildings that also dominate the landscape, but rarely will you see large swathes of public space dedicated to human use.

These cities are not made for us.

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, but it is definitely more prominent here than in other countries.

Driven by westward expansion and an abundance of space, urban planning in the United States has often been tabled due to the sheer quantity of land allowing for continual outward overflow.

Where other cities in Japan or England have had to make strategic urban design choices to increase density to combat the scarcity of land as populations increase, the United States has been able to be more reactive, often stitching various patches of new developments together with a greater number of roads with increasingly greater size.

Let me be clear, automobiles are not the enemy here.

We rely on them for transportation, as there are distances that we cannot feasibly travel on our own.

Infrastructure for private mobility has connected us in ways that have revolutionized the way we work, travel, and experience life, but it is far beyond the point where we should be asking ourselves, to what extent should we rely on them for transportation?

This is a question that I believe has been pushed to the side publicly despite being widely discussed in urban planning communities for decades, because its answer may raise questions about the fundamental incentives our economic system perpetuates.

Transportation is often a means to an economic end, hence the other giants dominating our landscape — buildings that house private corporations.

The resulting infrastructure system is a perpetually reinforcing feedback loop of cities profiting from the existence and accessibility to corporations and a large presence of private automobiles.

It also has resulted in the creation of easier access to those corporations via more paths for those automobiles, and maintained a perpetually increasing demand for those automobiles and the localization of businesses near those access hotspots.

This cycle informs the ways that we work, which communities we interact with — even how we buy groceries, and what we are left with is a general lack of large, accessible public spaces and general pedestrian and micro-mobility transportation options.

As expected, this often plays by, or even intensifies the socioeconomic divisions that exist within our country, playing a role in housing crises, gentrification, and culturally isolated communities.

The access to urban public spaces, when they do exist, is often focused on wealthier areas, accessed by cars, and surrounded by large corporations, all of which intrinsically hold economic barriers.

So who is the city made for?

While some of us may reap larger benefits than others along phenotypical divisions, cities are not made for one person over another, because cities are not made for people.

Cities are not made for automobiles or corporations, either, though, despite their physical appearances.

Cities are made by and for capital.

One may think that the idea of changing the beneficiaries of American cities with so many years of momentum behind its trajectory would be an impossible task, but I would argue differently.

With the careful consideration from social and economic experts and urban designers and the careful reconsideration of the incentives laid out in our systems, I believe that the answer lies not in the burning down of what already exists, but rather in the redirection of purpose.