Go to Town!
Most of us will live in cities, and it's a good thing
We are natural creatures, animals born from this earth. Undoubtedly, however, we have a knack for the artificial. Take cities, for example. Those big cosmopolitan, sky-scraping metropoli that signify “the future.” Well, what if I told you that cities are the future? That almost 3 out of every 4 people would call a city home by 2050? Turns out, about half of the world’s population already live in urban centers today, and that number is only to quickly rise in the coming decades.
What to do about this rapid urbanization–how can already crowded cities deal with the influx of more people? And how can this happen in a sustainable, preferably non-artificial manner?
First, let’s dispel some myths about cities and their dwellers. When we think of cities, arguably most of us would agree with Thomas Jefferson’s venerable sentiments that cities are “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.1” When we think of the “good life” we often think of rolling countryside, private gardens, and far-off neighbors a.k.a the suburbs. This conception of more natural living, however, has bred a host of other issues, not to mention exorbitant waste, toxic emissions, and a heady case of affluenza. Spreading people out actually increases the environmental damage they do, while making problems more difficult to see and address.2
Compactness, like in cities, actually uses less energy and less waste by allowing less space per person. Turns out that people who live in cities use only half as much electricity as those who don’t. And in one of the biggest cities, that of New York, the average electricity use is less than the urban average.3
Take gasoline, the average city resident uses only 1/4 as much gasoline as the average Vermonter–a state hailed for its eco-friendliness and verdant landscapes. The amount of urban gasoline use, like in Manhattan, can be an average of just 90 gallons a year compared to the national average of about 366 gallons.4 That’s 2,014 pounds of CO2 in the air versus 8,191 per non-urban person!5
And not to mention all the critters who are being shoved off their habitats due to humans wanting to build more houses. 85% of the world’s animals are endangered or on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss and human development.6 Let’s stick to the cities and let them have their wilderness.
Living more compactly in cities constrains family size, as it does the need to buy wasteful appliances (and the energy to run them). Living on top of each other in apartment living actually cuts down on heating bills because the apartment below heats the one above. We live symbiotically and share things.
Speaking of sharing, the emergence of the share-culture has hit cities everywhere. Starting with things like ZipCar and Craigslist which have democratized even further into services like Uber, Lift, and TaskRabbit, to name a few. This sharing culture is a slightly different version of one of the primary principles of Natural Capitalism where a “service and flow economy” was encouraged.7 Why buy something when you can borrow it?
This also relates to Walter Stahel’s (the coiner of “cradle to cradle”) idea of a Repair and Reuse culture, where repair shops outnumber new processed goods and their markets, thus decreasing the need to buy new things all of the time. If city inhabitants valued re-using items, like the containers for bulk food and cleaning products at the grocery store, or repairing items that are still good but need some upkeep, the overall amount of waste, raw material extraction, and clutter would be vastly decreased. Not to mention all the job opportunities that would arise from an industry that demands the craft and expertise of humans rather than mechanical production.
In the meantime, let’s at least use packaging that we can drop off at the local farmer’s market or co-op garden, like the amazing styrofoam-like boxes made by Ecovative, that are actually constructed from mushrooms.8
And let us not forget the incredible share-culture of innovation, ideas, and creative activities that happen at the hub of cities. A compact congregation of so many diverse people that are continually creating modernity, again and again.
But there are issues with cities, like the millions of dollars ($300 million a year in NYC)9 spent to truck waste to far-off landfills, record air pollution, and of course, the lack of greenery. I bet many of these problems could be solved by introducing more nature into our artificial megapolitans. By adding rooftop gardens, green streets to capture stormwater runoff, improving public transportation and flood-controlling parklands, the green could do the clean. Also, by localizing and tailoring energy use to be city-specific, whether using wind, solar, tidal and other clean technology, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the air could drastically decrease. Streetlights could run on solar panels, off-shore wind turbines could power homes, or tidal power could run the entire city, like in Scotland.10 Also, turns out that this is actually what most progressive cities (Vancouver, Portland and Curitiba, Brazil are just a couple) are doing.
So, the future may require us to get a little closer as everyone migrates to the vibrant stimulating atmosphere of cities. With foresight and good planning, cities could be the most human and the most natural places to live in in the future. Ah, and thank goodness they are so much fun too.
1. Jefferson, T. (1800). To Dr. Benjamin Rush Monticello, September 23, 1800
2. Owen, D. (2004). Everywhere should be more like New York.
3. Owen, D. (2009). Greenest Place in the U.S.? It’s Not Where You Think.
4. U.S. Energy Information Administration (2013). Frequently Asked Questions.
5. U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2013). Frequently Asked Questions.
6. World Wildlife Federation. (2013). Impact of habitat loss on species.
7. Rocky Mountain Institute. (1999). Natural Capitalism.
8. Ecovative (2014) Mushroom Packaging.
9. Florio, A. (2012). New York City trash: where does it all go?.
10. The Guardian. (2013).Scotland gives green light to Europe’s largest tidal energy project.