From Pavement to Parks: Designing Cities for People and the Planet

When I imagine a carbon-neutral, sustainable, zero-waste future, I picture our cities with sprawling green spaces integrated into the architecture. There, I see some moss planted on the side of a brick building to help filter and cool the air. Anywhere there isn’t a building or a walkway, I see several trees rooted or some native wildflowers blooming. I don’t see any major roads, especially not downtown, which is pedestrian-only. Instead, there’s a high-speed, solar-powered metro that runs throughout the city. The stations are efficiently placed and easily accessible. The zoning is mixed-use. No “single-family only” areas. I see high-rises with quaint coffee shops or package-free refill stores and apartments resting on top of them. People are walking around smiling, breathing in the clean, fresh air.

For those who don’t like big city living, I picture small, pedestrian-friendly towns. I see a main street with plenty of parks. Picturesque Mom & Pop storefronts line this street, selling anything you may need within a 15-minute walk. Around the main street are neighborhoods, each filled with vibrant green spaces. I see meditation gardens, community farms, and playgrounds. There are protected bike lanes lining the single-lane roads. Streets are narrow, with calming tactics in place, like planters bumping out at crosswalks or raised intersections.  There are covered bus stops and a bus route that runs efficiently since there’s so little traffic. Everything you see is methodical and purposeful to make it as safe a space as possible for pedestrians and bikers.

This is not a town run by cars. I see anything but suburban sprawl. Anything but those pavement deserts, where each drive-thru restaurant is separated by a parking lot. Where a mile-stretch of road only has enough space for nine fast-food restaurants and two big-box stores. All that space, which could be filled with a mini urban forest, a community farm, and four public parks, wasted on parking lot requirements.

The movements towards walkable urban development and environmentalism are intrinsically connected. Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure encourages sustainable habits. This infrastructure must also be built in an accessible way, which ultimately causes it to be more environmentally friendly.

Walkable spaces, naturally, encourage walking, but also cycling and the use of public transportation. Lower personal vehicle usage means lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced air pollution from transportation. On the other hand, suburban sprawl requires extensive car travel for daily activities, leading to increased fuel consumption.

In sustainable urban development, mixed-use developments combine residential, commercial, and recreational spaces. More efficient use of land can create abundant green spaces within a compact area and increase access to these areas for larger populations if they are built intentionally. Many pedestrian-friendly traffic calming methods, such as narrower roads and bump-outs, use that extra space created to plant greenery, like trees and native grasses.

Adding this extra green space can also help to reduce the urban heat-island effect. This is when cities replace green cover with pavement and other surfaces that retain heat. Adding green infrastructure, like a lush tree canopy, can reduce the heat island effect by creating shade, releasing moisture, and deflecting radiation from the sun. Conversely, suburban sprawl is an example of poor land use. The largely-pavement parking lots and wide, multi-lane roads are generally to blame. Additionally, these fragmented landscapes disrupt ecosystems and biodiversity more readily than denser cities or towns with natural landscapes and agricultural fields surrounding them. Who wouldn’t want to live in a greener, cooler space?

High-density housing is often more energy-efficient for heating and cooling compared to low-density, single-family home development. Shared walls also reduce surface area in urban buildings and lead to lower energy usage per housing unit. Suburban homes often have larger surface areas, meaning that more of the home is exposed to the elements, leading to decreased energy efficiency. Larger homes also require more energy to heat or cool them.

Sustainable and green urban spaces also encourage social interaction and community engagement through shared public spaces. Physical activity through walking and cycling, access to parks, and social interaction all enhance mental well-being. On the other hand, suburban sprawl can lead to social isolation because of a lack of easily accessible communal areas. Limited access to green spaces can also lead to a sedentary lifestyle and impacts on mental health and overall quality of life.

Is this possible today? Can we do it in a just and inclusive way, one that prevents “green gentrification”? Blacks in Green (BIG) is an environmental and economic justice development network focused on closing the racial wealth and health gap by using their Sustainable Square Mile System. Their novel system uses the 8 Principles of Green Village Building which they created to form a circular economy, where all needs are met within a walkable area.  The idea of these villages centers around the concept that all knowledge and goods are local, ensuring that wealth circulates through the members of the community. This prevents “green gentrification,” which is when the creation of green and sustainable spaces increases the property values and rents, without current community members benefiting from the economic growth. Green gentrification causes those community members to be forced out of their homes and neighborhoods, as they can no longer afford to live there. BIG’s mission will generate wealth and economic growth for people of color and ensure that equal opportunity to thriving, healthy spaces is possible.

It’s already happening; many of the pictures throughout this blog are from Baltimore, where sustainable urbanism movements are transforming the city’s landscape. Sustainable urban development is crucial as climate change and urban populations grow, requiring greener, more walkable, and inclusive cities. You can help by advocating for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, supporting local sustainable businesses, and getting involved with community greening projects. Together, we can push for a healthier, more resilient future. Our actions today will shape thriving urban spaces for everyone tomorrow.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Sophie Valkenberg

Sophie Valkenberg is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University, concentrating in Community Engagement & Environmental Justice and Ecotoxicology & Environmental Health. She was born in the Netherlands but quickly moved to and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Coming from a country with a very robust eco-friendly infrastructure initially sparked her interest in environmental studies and sustainable living.