If your neighbour installed solar panels on their house, would you be more likely to?
I’ve discussed a lot of the physical, direct effects that cities have on the environment in this series, but it is worth noting that when people are concentrated in a dense urban area, there are also secondary environmental effects. Vox ran an intriguing story last year regarding the “contagion” of solar panels: where solar panels were installed, neighbouring properties were a lot more likely to do the same (1). If you follow the link in the references, you can see the contagion of solar panels over time as tracked by the largest solar installer in the U.S., SolarCity. In some cities, the percentage of installations as a result of referrals was as high as 69%! Why does this occur? When people live in close proximity, it gives them the ability to gain information, have conversations, and alter their actions as a results of others. There is also the “keeping up with the Joneses” effect if a household does not want to be left behind as the only house on the block to lack solar panels.
This is a powerful example of the positive effect that city living can have on environmental action: if a small population is outspoken about prioritizing the environment, they are more likely to influence others and inspire collective action. As Nathanael Lauster mentions in his book The Death and Life of the Single Family House, renowned urbanist Iris Marion Young once stated that “cities, rather than suburbs or villages, offered the best hope for sustaining a socially just and engaged vision of democracy” (2, p. 53).
Besides the indirect effect that cities have on engaging people to take action on sustainable living, they also offer an opportunity for urban citizens to have a strong voice on environmental issues through a political platform. I’ve recently heard a lot of people, particularly young people like myself, complaining that there is no reason to vote in a municipal election since city government doesn’t really affect any change. I must dispel that myth right now - cities, more than ever before, are the global centres of innovation, creation, and forward thinking (3). “Superstar Cities” such as New York, London, and Tokyo have an unprecedented amount of influence on global politics, especially on such crucial issues as climate change. This may sound a bit idealistic, but consider the C40 group of major world cities, which acts as an international body similar to the G20, with Mayors instead of heads of state making commitments to such issues as Carbon Emission Reduction (4). Through organizations like C40, cities have the power to act independently: for example, despite Donald Trump’s threats of the United States exiting the Paris Agreement, over 340 City Mayors have signed on to uphold it (5).
On a more local scale, a city’s government also decides what the transit systems, energy infrastructure, and development regulations will be for the urban area it represents. These decisions can have a resounding impact on the future of cities, and when taken cumulatively, the future of over half of the world’s population.
It may feel like your individual voice won’t make a difference, but if you want to make positive change on environmental issues, your city is the place to start. So as a final word of my two weeks of writing for the Green Medium, I’d like to make a call to action based on three points:
Be engaged in the everyday going-on of your city and City Council. This may be as simple as glancing at the Metro newspaper, or as in depth as watching Council meetings on live stream (http://councilontheweb.edmonton.ca/).
If there is an issue you feel strongly about, speak to your Councillor: email, phone, or register to speak at a Council meeting. They do listen to citizens, as I have seen first hand by attending the Transit Strategy discussions of the Urban Planning Committee.
Vote. Your Councillors and Mayor will make impactful changes to city policy, which affect municipal, provincial, and national political outcomes. On October 16, be engaged with your municipal government and turn up to the polls. The youth vote is historically low but it’s time for that to change. For more information, https://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/edmonton-elections.aspx.
The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, by Nathanael Lauster (2016)
The New Urban Crisis, by Richard Florida (2017)