Road monocropping as environmental issue
This week, we briefly discussed the phenomenon of monocropping agriculture. Monocropping contributes to our dependence for harmful pesticides, depletes the local farmland’s soil, and increases crops’ susceptibility to pests & disease. But the human tendency to monocrop has spread across American roadways, causing massive harm to human lives, human health, human independence, natural habitats, carbon emissions, and air & environmental pollution. Luckily, other cities demonstrate far more successful models from which we can learn.
Looking back at streets from the turn of the 20th century, they’re diverse: swarms of pedestrians, horses, cyclists, shopping stalls, carts, streetcars, animals. They were throughways & public space for everyone. As car companies began putting automobiles onto American streets, with traffic deaths increasing rapidly, concentrated on children playing around their homes, “jaywalking” went from a human right to an illegal behavior for pedestrians to avoid. (This article has more great details.) Letters in newspapers, car companies, & more convinced the public streets were exclusively for cars, while sidewalks were for pedestrians, and that was the ideal layout of the modern public street.
Paved asphalt roads came about from the boom of cycling in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. As more & more people got onto bicycles, roads made of mud or viscous early asphalt & filled with uneven rocks & trash made for bumpy rides. But as private cars arrived, we lost the plot, giving over an ever-increasing amount of public space to them, at enormous cost to our health & societal wellbeing. Cars use up valuable urban space, contributing to the disastrous urban sprawl I discussed last week. They cause air & noise pollution concentrated among lower-income communities stuck living alongside roadways & highways. They straight-up kill thousands of Americans annually, injuring tens of thousands. 33% of Americans don’t have drivers’ licenses, dramatically curtailing their freedom for independent movement in most areas of the country—children grow up utterly dependent on getting permission & caretakers having the capacity to drive them places.
We need to un-monocrop our roads, welcoming more than just private cars again. We need to rewild cities. This is beginning all over the world, with lovely results. The Dutch city of Utrecht paved over a long-iconic canal in the 1970s for a 12-lane private car highway, but removed the highway in 2020 to rebuild diverse urban public space.
In Barcelona, after plans from the early 20th century created urban parks inside each city block, in the later parts of the century cars took over, paving over more & more land, choking the air with pollution. The city has released a plan, called Superblock, to bring back green space & reduce the 60% of surface area in the city devoted to private cars. So far, The Guardian writes, “in the two years since the second superblock was inaugurated in the Sant Antoni barrio, traffic has fallen by 80% and NO2 pollution by 33%. Noise levels have dropped by 5 decibels.”
Even right here in New York, we have public and private examples of rewilding our streets. In 2021, Macy’s committed $235M to renovate the public urban space around its flagship Herald Square store, replacing car-exclusive streets with “modern, pedestrian-friendly urban space with upgraded subway access, improved transit connections and ADA-accessible elevators.” Today, the area around Macy’s has tables with seating for people to enjoy, a double-width bike path, and far less car noise. It joins the public “third spaces” nearby such as around Madison Square Park.
Electric cars reduce carbon emissions compared to gas cars, but they solve none of the fundamental societal problems cars pose. Rewilding cities will bring back the diverse, accessible, human energy our public spaces desperately lack these days. We can reduce utterly avoidable traffic deaths, add bike infrastructure that gets drivers onto low-carbon bicycles that make them healthier, get more people walking & meeting their neighbors, save families massive sums of money on cars, reduce air pollution disproportionately choking our least-advantaged neighbors. We’re only now understanding the depth of our mistake of monocropping our streets for cars, but planting the seeds in the rewilding garden shows us a better way.