Are cities really sustainable?

One of my colleagues recently presented on sustainability and urban planning in Vancouver. This led me to think of what I’ve been reading lately. Not libatious poetry about cities or google eyed narratives in Next American City magazine, but some naysaying.

I’ve read a bit of city naysaying recently. One critique of cities is that they absorb quite a bit of bio capacity from other areas, requiring transport. Meaning, we cannot have Hong Kongs every 100 miles. Not at HK’s current scale.

For Rome in 2,000 years ago this would have meant moving food and lumber from outlying areas, France and even Africa back to Rome. Intercity trade without capital flight can be good, but ecologically speaking if there is one metropolis pulling in resources from everywhere, that probably cannot last long before exhaustion from human population growth and increasing resource use per capita.

This reminds me of something one of my friends said once, that urban is the conceit of stretching (bending) natural limits. I agree that urban constitutes the “extend and pretend” that we are separate from nature. Apart from wilderness.

In 2007 I remember reading on CUNY’s sustainability blog that cities are “not green.” Of course this meant that “green” is living closer to the land, in lieu of having urban arcologies. You know — those umpteen story buildings featured in the computer game SimCity2000. See here (And you always had to cheat to get enough money — aka energy — to build any. Hmm!)

Various people say it, with a ring of self-evident truth: cities are not green. They are concrete slabs upon which we route chemically treated water from hundreds of miles away, food from similar distances, and so forth. I’ve also seen the statement recently that “civilization comes at a price.” I forget exactly where I read that statement. This also rings true, though I’m not sure how useful it is to say so. We will continue our urban experiments as long as we can, as the Greeks, Romans or Soviets did. Other generations of people in the future will make their attempts.

If we can have civilizations, cities are pretty darn nice to have. That means growing supplies of everything we all need on a daily basis. Abundant bread and water, cloth and iron and zero-down FHA mortgages, free shopping bags and AOL CDs for all. If not, we must downsize to towns and villages and living simply.

I am all for some amount of civilization, even though it comes at a price and may be short lived, like steroid-powered athletic performance. Cities, like individuals, will come and go. I see that in neighborhood feel and among neighborhood communities in the time scale of my own lifetime. Imagine if you were able to view human history over geological  time. It would be obvious!

All the above aside, regional planning is a MUST for smart use of resources. The Soviets in their time had very resource efficient public transportation. This has undoubtedly helped Russia to have one HSR in place, vs zero for the US. (86mph Acela and 67mph BART do not count.) Many young Chinese and Indians are ga-ga over cars but the elites in those countries have long seen the value of rail transport.

The Portland example shows us best the benefits of regional planning. However, it is not impossible, especially as anyone can see from the examples of Phoenix, Charlotte, Denver or Atlanta. These cities have all unveiled brand new light rail systems with impressive ridership numbers in the last few years. All of them are beating projections.

Metro planning with teeth is urgently needed across America to make sure that all present and future energies are directed to long-term investments and projects that make sense, and will strengthen regional economies.

The future as I see it will be regional and local.

If you are nostalgic, watch Star Trek reruns on KOFY television. 😉


2 responses to “Are cities really sustainable?

  1. All the dirty work will be done at the regional and local level, where people feel the immediate effects of planning, good or bad. It will require an educational campaign to persuade voters that green is good for them, and necessary for their survival. But we must keep a vigilant eye on the external threats, the politicians on the federal level who vote for the corporations that bought them, and the state government that raids our resources, natural and economic.
    On the surface, density and transportation considerations make cities seem the logical choice for sustainability. After all, no one lives their entire life on a back-to-the-land commune. There may be an organic limit to the size of a metropolis, a point at which it caves in on itself, a victim of its own success, a Sodom-Gomorrah ending to an orgy of consumerism and lifestyle indulgence. There are just too many people, not enough water. We are the grasshoppers, eating up everything in sight. When it’s gone, we die. Enjoy it while you may.

  2. Thank you Karen for your comments on how success is the seed of failure. Like many people say about business, you can’t win without losing… and we keep trying. Recorded human history (cave paintings, obelisks, ruins) shows that we keep trying. We succeed, get too big for our foundations, our brick buildings fall back to dust and pasture.

    Rome. Indus Valley. Mayans. Easter Island. Ireland. Capitalism-Socialism-Communism. Edo Japan. Those societies based on rice have succeeded well, but even they depend on the four horsemen to keep their population numbers in check. Famine, flood, war, pestilence…

    These four are more in store for us now … mainly because there are so many of us humans. Like yeast in a champagne bottle, greedily eating up sugar and oxygen, facing a similar collective fate.

    I keep reading that societies really only survive about 200 years, and the USA is now 223 years old, and we’ve run out of enough resources to supply everyone the good life. Here and elsewhere. We’ve lived richly in the US between 1890 and 2000. The only good thing going now is freedom of speech on the internet and any US President can squelch that easily with an EO.

    Otherwise, what’s good is that collectively we’re waking up from our slumber. Every unemployed is one more awakee from the corporate state Matrix.

    Yes, let’s enjoy life.

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