“It is past time to broaden the discussion of the human future and connect it to the rest of life.”
Edward O. Wilson
My view from the light rail car was instructive. All along the route, new condos and apartments were replacing old, tattered single family homes and shabby duplexes. As we crossed to downtown, the industrial areas shifted over to residential and commercial uses. Change was happening and the urban density was increasing, but it didn’t seem to be intrusive. It seemed to work.
I’ve been troubled by a finding in Subirdia from John Marzluff’s studies reporting that bird numbers and diversity are greatest in the suburbs. My environmental and city planning background going back into the ’60’s taught me that the city, and people in them, was the preeminent environmental problem we face. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.
Urban areas have lots of problems: congestion, air and water pollution, social issues and destruction of environmental features. That’s all true, but we imagine the alternative to be a pristine wilderness, along the lines of E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth solution, where human impact is to be largely eliminated across large areas.
It’s not a bad goal, but hardly achievable unless we first address the ‘dirty’ half of the earth, the part “infested” by humans.
So, how do we go about connecting humans to the rest of life? I think we start by accepting that cities and urban areas will not only exist, but are necessary to our existence. The challenge is to make them not exclusively human, but to integrate them with nature.
The suburbs offer examples of how this can be done. In the suburbs we have trees and vegetation that offer safety and food to the critters and help clean up the air and water. (It’s also pleasant to look at and be in.) We feed the birds and squirrels intentionally, but also provide food for a whole universe of lesser creatures, such as mice, voles and insects, and larger creatures like raccoons, skunks and deer that find the unnoticed hideaways and access routes. We derive energy from our contact with nature, in whatever form it takes.
Habitat, the United Nations global cities’ summit, has issued a New Urban Agenda intended to steer the growth of cities over the next two decades. Younger generations are “embracing urban ideals, including the common ground of public spaces, mass transit, streets and sidewalks.” It is also becoming recognized that “investments in things like public transit and infrastructure pay big economic dividends – how good cities are not just equitable and green but good for business.” (Kimmelman, 10/30/2016)
The challenge is to incorporate into cities and expanding urban areas the new public spaces, offices, urban farms, sanitation facilities and community centers, that also create jobs. And we need to do this in a way that accommodates natural forces already present. For example, Lubell reports that design features that prevent or minimize bird deaths associated with high-rise buildings can be readily implemented.
Improved solar power techniques can take advantage of urban building roofs and other areas, such as parking lots, while potentially reducing their ‘heat island’ effect. Some small techniques, such as painting a flat roof white, rather than leaving black tar to absorb sunlight, are easy, cheap and effective. Storm water collection can be managed to create or embellish areas to be more nature-friendly, and at the same time, reduce sewer needs.
The beneficial effects of vegetation on not only nature, but the human psyche, is already clear. Trees can provide shade, improve air quality and reduce human stress. Other vegetation has similar effects and when combined with water features, can create mini-environments beneficial to creatures and humans.
Improving urban areas makes higher densities of humans not only tolerable, but attractive. The ongoing worldwide shift from rural to urban population is happening in spite of the terrible conditions often present in urban areas. It is to our advantage to make cities and urban areas as viable and healthy as possible in order to maintain a coherent society.
It seems that, as predicted as late as 1968’s The Population Bomb, our human population will continue to increase. One of the key factors in maintaining that population is the availability of food. Shifting population from rural to urban areas accommodates the needs of Big Food for massive planting and farming areas. However, I’m unsure if Big Food farmland is better environmentally than urban areas.
Technologies and production practices since 1970 have been reported to significantly lower the use of energy and water for big farms, and use half the labor and 16 percent less land, while US crop production doubled (Lusk). But is Big Food farmland integrated with nature? Have we assessed the compatibility of giant swathes of plowed and harvested fields with the pre-farming natural features? I’m sure that some practices actually improve conditions for, say, migrating waterfowl, but what are the impacts on local flora and fauna?
The traditional farmstead weighed less heavily on the environment than Big Food. There was more diversity of crops, and hedgerows and water features provided habitat for all kinds of creatures. The resident farmers were part of a small community that shared social, economic and environmental conditions. Was (or is) small farm or rural life perfect? No, but neither is concentrated urban life.
It makes no sense to condense our population into cities, no matter what the quality of life is, if we just tear apart everything outside of them to provide the necessary food and water and power. We need to be smart about how we develop and manage our cities and urban areas, rural areas and farmland, and our wild and undeveloped areas.
As Wilson noted, we need to integrate nature into all our human efforts, if we want there to be a human future.
Michael Kimmelman, The Kind of Thinking Cities Need, The New York Times, October 30, 2016
Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, 2016
Sam Lubell, How to Keep Buildings From Killing Hundreds of Millions of Birds a Year, Wired Magazine, November 1, 2016
Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, 1968
Jayson Lusk, Industrial Farms Have Gone Green, New York Times, September 25, 2016
New Urban Agenda, 2016, https://habitat3.org/the-new-urban-agenda