Op-Ed: Our modern-day city is broken

By Aayush Shah, MEng ’24 (BioE)


The following essay received an honorable mention in this year’s Berkeley MEng op-ed contest. In this contest, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate an Engineering-related topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.

Note: As opinion pieces, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute.

Close your eyes, and take a second to imagine a classic European city street.

Figure 1: A photo of a street in the Netherlands that has no car access, and implements walkable city elements. Credit: (Luscher 2023)

You probably thought of something similar to this street in Maastricht, Netherlands, right? Local restaurants and stores line the city street, lots of people sit outside and chat, and most notably, there are very few cars present (Figure 1). This idyllic city street is very common across Europe and Asia, so why doesn’t the United States have the same style of city architecture?

Countless major urban areas worldwide have been developed with the “15-minute city” concept, from Amsterdam to Tokyo. What this means is that within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from a resident’s place of living, they should be able to access all daily necessities, such as groceries, work, education, and shopping centers. However, the United States has adopted a different perspective on city development, with an emphasis on drivable cities rather than public transportation development in major urban populations.

As a result, 83% of Americans who live in urban areas are affected by the lack of accessibility that these car-centric designs lead to, such as unmaintained sidewalks and dangerous intersections restricting the ability for residents to make short walks (University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems 2022).

Recently, however, there has been a clamor for a shift in the way our cities are built, and for good reason.

Walkable cities hold many advantages for their residents, increasing overall social and mental health, reducing negative environmental impacts caused by cars, and the economic boost for local businesses. US residents should push their local governments to encourage more walkable city layouts, despite the increased initial costs, due to the undeniable long-term benefits that will follow.

One of these long-term benefits is resident health. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, accounting for almost 20% of all deaths throughout the year (Luscher 2023). With this in mind, an emphasis on activities that can reduce obesity and chronic diseases, such as walking or biking, can positively impact people’s future health goals. This is where the implementation of walkable cities comes into play for major US cities.

In fact, a study conducted across 24 California cities concluded that there was a direct correlation between walkable street networks and lower diabetes, asthma, obesity, and heart disease rates. Some of these benefits included a 2.4% decrease in residents with high blood pressure, a 1.6% decrease in residents with diabetes, and a 1.8% decrease in obese residents (Marshall, Piatkowski, and Garrick 2014).

In our ever-isolated modern-day society, walkable cities provide a new avenue for meaningful social interaction.

By providing organic meeting locations, residents are more incentivized to be in these outdoor spaces, allowing for new connections to be created. With more social interactions, lower noise pollution, and being surrounded by urban green space, we see improved emotional well-being and mental alertness (Roe et al. 2020).

Currently, zoning laws are the main cause of this car-centric urban design. By requiring the separation of commercial and residential buildings, we begin to see why city sprawl is so common in the US. In contrast, most, if not all, of Western Europe follows mixed-use zoning laws, allowing for ground-floor commercial spaces and upper-floor residential apartments.

Figure 2: A rendering of a walkable city design for a Californian city with a central plaza. Credit: (Ratkay 2022)

What a layout similar to the one seen above does is promote small, local businesses in the area, as the increased foot traffic and convenience will help encourage shoppers to come to these stores rather than large chain stores like Walmart. On the individual level, condensed city areas can lead to an increase in the value of homes due to not needing a car, which is extremely attractive to a majority of young professionals, driving even more business to these areas. Residents in these walkable areas also benefit from significantly lower costs in car maintenance and gas consumption, providing even bigger economic benefits.

On the topic of cars, the environmental impact of removing our dependence on cars for daily usage provides massive long-term benefits. By encouraging public transportation infrastructure and progressive transit engineering, we could predict a reduction of 3.51 gigatons of emissions and $3.94 trillion saved in car operating costs by 2050 (Project Drawdown 2020).

In fact, with nearly 290 million cars on the road, the automobile industry is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, as seen in Figure 3, and while the transition to electric vehicles is helping bring that number down, public transit development still projects as a much better long-term solution to combat environmental issues.

Figure 3: Pie charts showing the breakdown of Greenhouse Gas emissions by category, with transportation being the largest emitter of GHG. Within transportation, light-duty vehicles, which are made up of everyday use cars used by residents, cause the most pollution. Source: (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2021)

So the next time you have to mark off 3 hours in your busy day just to get your groceries, fill up gas, and buy a new shirt, think about how easy it could be if your town developed more walkable areas near you, and let your city planners know.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023. “Leading Causes of Death.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 18, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm.
  2. Luscher, Dan. 2023. “Access, Not Mobility.” 15-Minute City. July 13, 2023. https://www.15minutecity.com/blog/access.
  3. Marshall, Wesley E., Daniel P. Piatkowski, and Norman W. Garrick. 2014. “Community Design, Street Networks, and Public Health.” Journal of Transport & Health 1 (4): 326–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2014.06.002.
  4. Project Drawdown. 2020. “Walkable Cities .” Project Drawdown. February 6, 2020. https://drawdown.org/solutions/walkable-cities.
  5. Ratkay, Steve. 2022. “Mixed-Use Zoning | Westminster, CA.” Www.westminster-Ca.gov. 2022. https://www.westminster-ca.gov/departments/community-development/planning-division/2022-zoning-map-and-code-update/mixed-use-zoning.
  6. Roe, Jenny, Andrew Mondschein, Chris Neale, Laura Barnes, Medhi Boukhechba, and Stephanie Lopez. 2020. “The Urban Built Environment, Walking and Mental Health Outcomes among Older Adults: A Pilot Study.” Frontiers in Public Health 8 (September). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.575946.
  7. The Climate Reality Project. 2021. “Walkable Cities Can Benefit the Environment, the Economy, and Your Health.” Climate Reality. July 8, 2021. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/walkable-cities-can-benefit-environment-economy-and-your-health.
  8. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2021. “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” US EPA. August 27, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions.



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