Do cities have a positive effect on the environment? Your automatic response is probably no - giant parcels of land covered with concrete, sewers emitting foul odours, and overflowing landfills might come to mind. However, the seven, soon to be eight, billion people on this planet need to live somewhere, so what if we took a more optimistic view of the situation? Can cities be the best way to house our growing population? Or are they just sprawling areas of environmental decay? Over the next two weeks I’ll have a series of articles highlighting different perspectives on this issue.
Part 1: The downside of expanding cities: SPRAWL
Every time I go to the Edmonton International Airport, it seems like the sea of houses has expanded farther and farther away from our core. Do you remember when Ikea was the end of the city? This can be summed up in one word: sprawl.
In 2008, the global population living in cities passed that living in rural areas (1). Urban areas are expanding, and by 2030 they are predicted to cover just under 10% of the planet’s land surface, doubling the coverage today (1). Urbanization is impacted by a huge variety of factors, depending on what country, region, and socioeconomic circumstances people live in. These may include economic factors (such as looking for jobs), institutional factors (such as government-mandated urban expansion), or social factors (such as moving to join family members). For the purpose of relatability, I’ll focus on the North American context.
As Nathanael Lauster explores in his book The Death and Life of the Single Family House, the mid - late 20th Century of North American urbanization consisted largely of en masse development projects, and the “treatment of urban land as a market-governed commodity” (2). That is to say, instead of individual property owners buying a lot and building a house, as was done in pre-war cities, neighbourhoods were constructed as mass development projects. Developers pursued higher and higher profit margins, without consideration for the social or environmental implications of their actions.
Now I’m not against the expansion of cities, but I think the way that it is currently being done through single use, low density areas on the edges of cities is not sustainable. Here are just a few of the environmental effects of current development:
Infrastructure inefficiency: large amounts of new infrastructure (pipes, roads, power grids) must be built to support sprawl.
Lifestyle effects: per capita energy usage is significantly higher in suburban single detached properties than in core areas (3). This is partially due to the fact that when a large area is covered solely by residential properties, residents are forced to travel farther, often by car, to access services, shops, schools, and offices, increasing their carbon emissions.
Loss of land: sensitive environmental land such as wetlands, and valuable agricultural land, such as prairie soils, must be converted to urban infrastructure.
So that’s the bleak picture of cities, ever expanding with inefficient and unsustainable suburbs. I’ll be in the woods this weekend on a camping trip, but if I survive the bears and mosquitoes I’ll be back next week to take a look at the positive side of urbanization: the impacts of density, sustainable alternatives to sprawl, and the benefits of collective action brought on by cities.
“Urban Planet: How Growing Cities Will Wreck the Environment Unless We Build Them Right”, by Bryan Walsh, http://science.time.com/2012/09/18/urban-planet-how-growing-cities-will-wreck-the-environment-unless-we-build-them-right/
The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, by Nathanael Lauster (2016)
“Suburban sprawl cancels carbon-footprint savings of dense urban cores”, by Robert Sanders, http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/01/06/suburban-sprawl-cancels-carbon-footprint-savings-of-dense-urban-cores/