Reducing Auto Dependency and Sprawl: An Ecological Imperative

As climate change threatens to make life on earth unbearable, most of us recognize that our society must reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. Automobile use is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce emissions, we must stop driving so much. But how?

Illustration of urban life and nature in harmony.

How might we restructure our cities around principles of ecological sustainability? Mona Caron portrays an ecotopian future in this detail from her {title}Noe Valley Mural{/title} diptych. Credit: Mona Caron ({link url=""}{/link}).

More than half of all Americans live in sprawling suburbs, a built environment that forces them to own cars in order to function. For thousands of years of human settlement, the functions of daily life were clustered together in one place, accessible by foot or animal-drawn wheels. Later, as cities developed, people could live in apartments above shops, or down the block from them, to meet most of their daily needs. But after World War II, for many social, cultural, psychological, and economic reasons, the United States initiated a radical departure from this settlement pattern, creating an entirely new one: horizontal sprawl. Americans fled their old urban neighborhoods for single-family homes in low-density housing subdivisions.

For a time they commuted back to work in the cities. Then workplaces left the cities as well, and cars were the only way to get around. Soon homes, workplaces, and shopping sites were cordoned off into their own dedicated areas. Zoning codes even came to mandate the separation of residential, office, and commercial spaces. People living in sprawl have to drive, usually several times a day, to meet their basic daily needs, traveling from housing subdivision to strip mall to office park. For people to simply function in sprawl, car ownership—one vehicle for each adult per household—is thus all but mandatory.

The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods

To reduce auto dependence, we need to reshape our built environment so that it no longer requires car ownership—thereby enhancing sustainability. In recent decades, a new generation of urban planners has been devising concrete ways to do just that.

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