The Ecology of Cities

Posted on 30 November 2007. Filed under: Development, Environment |

Increased urbanization and the growth of megacities are leading to a way of life that is harmful on many levels, argues Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch.

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Rural to urban migration creates huge challenges for city managers as resources become strained by growing populations. Photo Credit: Karl Grobl for NetAid

GLOBAL ENVISION: In 1900, there were only a handful of cities with a million people. Today 408 cities have at least that many inhabitants — and there are 20 megacities with ten million or more residents.Tokyo’s metropolitan population of 35 million exceeds that of Canada. Mexico City’s population of 19 million is nearly equal to that of Australia. New York, Sâo Paulo, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Delhi, Calcutta, Buenos Aires, and Shanghai follow close behind.

Cities require a concentration of food, water, energy and materials that nature cannot provide. Concentrating these masses of materials and then dispersing them in the form of garbage, sewage and as pollutants in air and water is challenging city managers everywhere.

Unclean Air

Most of today’s cities are not healthy places to live. Urban air everywhere is polluted.

Typically centered on the automobile and no longer bicycle- or pedestrian-friendly, cities deprive people of needed exercise — creating an imbalance between caloric intake and caloric expenditures.

Obesity Epidemic

As a result, obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in cities in developing as well as industrial countries. With more than one billion people overweight worldwide, epidemiologists now see this as a public health threat of historic proportions — a growing source of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and a higher incidence of several forms of cancer.

The evolution of modern cities is tied to advances in transport, initially for ships and trains, but it was the internal combustion engine combined with cheap oil that provided the mobility of people and freight that fueled the phenomenal urban growth of the 20th century. As the world urbanized, energy use climbed.

Early cities relied on food and water from the surrounding countryside, but today cities often depend on distant sources even for such basic amenities. Los Angeles, for example, draws much of its water supply from the Colorado River, some 970 kilometers (600 miles) away.

Supply Shortage

Mexico City’s burgeoning population, living at 3,000 meters above sea level, must now depend on the costly pumping of water from 150 kilometers away and must lift it a kilometer or more to augment its inadequate water supplies. Beijing is planning to draw water from the Yangtze River basin nearly 1,500 kilometers away.

Food comes from even greater distances, as is illustrated by Tokyo. While Tokyo still depends on Japan’s highly productive farmers for its rice, tight government restrictions on land mean that its wheat comes largely from the Great Plains of North America and from Australia. Likewise, its corn and soybean supply comes largely from the U.S. Midwest.

Oil Dependence

The oil that provides much of the energy to move resources into and out of cities itself often comes from distant oil fields. Rising oil prices will affect cities, but they will affect even more the suburbs that many cities have spawned.

It is widely assumed that urbanization will continue. But this is not necessarily so. The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain urban growth. For example, some 400 cities in China are already facing a chronic shortage of water.

Against this backdrop, Richard Register, author of “Ecocities — Building Cities in Balance with Nature,” says it is time to fundamentally rethink the design of cities. Cities should be designed for people, not for cars. He goes even further, talking about pedestrian cities — communities designed so that people do not need cars because they can walk to most of the places they need to go or take public transportation.

The Register Route

Register also says that a city should be seen as a functioning system not in terms of its parts but in terms of its whole. He makes a convincing case that cities should be integrated into local ecosystems rather than imposed on them.

For Register, the design of the city and its buildings become a part of the local landscape, capitalizing on the local ecology. For example, buildings are designed to be heated and cooled by nature as much as possible.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Cities can largely live on recycled water that is cleaned and used again and again. The “flush and forget” water system will become too costly for many water-short cities in a world after oil.

Urban food production, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, will expand in vacant lots and on rooftops as oil prices rise.

In the years ahead, urbanization could slow or even be reversed. In a world of land, water and energy scarcity, the value of each resource may increase substantially, shifting the terms of trade between the countryside and cities.

Rural Reliance

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the terms of trade have favored cities because they control capital and technology, the scarce resources. But if land and water become the scarcest resources, then those in rural areas who control them may have the upper hand.

With a new economy based on renewable energy, a disproportionate share of that energy, particularly wind energy and biofuels, will have to come from nearby rural areas.

Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute, is currently the president of the Earth Policy Institute. He is a frequent contributor to the Globalist.

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