All too often, people who care about the natural environment blame urbanism for causing degradation and destruction. Cities are parasites, cities are unnatural and cities are unsustainable, they say. Often paired with these opinions is the idea that capitalistic interests are ruthlessly robbing the earth of its resources. I understand this mentality because I used to think this way.
But cities don’t deserve such a bad rap. And they certainly don’t deserve to be blamed for environmental degradation and then shoved aside as advocates and policymakers try to find successful solutions to climate change. Cities need to be invited back into the discussion. They hold potential, much of which is overlooked when they are so callously kicked to the curb.
For class, I had to listen to a Freakonomics podcast in which economist and author Edward Glaeser shed positive light on the potential that cities hold. One example he gives is that, on average, people who live in cities emit less carbon than people living elsewhere. This is because they drive cars less frequently and for shorter distances, opting instead to make use of the widely implemented system of mass transit. Houses in cities also tend to be smaller than those in suburbs, thus requiring less energy for heat and air conditioning. Cities typically have more people and thus more smog than the countryside, but spread that same population as a city out among the suburbs and we’ll have an even larger pollution problem.
Another example Glaeser gives that shows the potential of cities is the upcoming technology of green infrastructure. Green roofs are covered with vegetation that absorbs heat and water, while also creating habitats for species and filtering pollution out of the air. Permeable pavement allows stormwater to travel through it and into the ground below, ensuring that the water does not instead run down streets, pick up contaminants and then require treatment.
Old methods of infrastructure are becoming largely outdated and, frankly, unsustainable. But this does not also mean that every single aspect of cities is unsustainable. Green technologies such as these represent the parts of cities that we can — and should — include in our attempts at protecting the environment.
The market system that is largely associated with cities can also be used in the battle against climate change and environmental degradation. Economic incentives drive our nation and our globe; people don’t usually do something unless the social and economic benefits outweigh the costs. The intrinsic value of nature — its beauty, wonder and ability to articulate the human soul — is, sadly, not enough to protect it. If we marry this intrinsic value with economic value, then without a doubt we will have a successfully protected environment.
Cities and nature are not really at conflict with each other. At least, it’s not that simple. Cities were erected from the same land upon which they now stand; they depend fully on the earth for air, water, food, recreation — you name it. Further, the development of the market system has caused nature to be dependent upon cities just as inextricably.
All this being said, I advocate not for the protection of the environment alone, but for the connection between city and nature to be realized, honored and integrated into every aspect of life. When we are able to see the full picture, we are able to augment those aspects of cities that are beneficial to sustainability and diminish those that are not.
Cities can be part of the problem or the solution. It is up to us to make the difference.
Georgia Kerkezis is a sophomore majoring in environmental studies.