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Urban Environmentalism?


Sisyphus
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I tried searching for this, but I didn't find anything. If there's already a thread to this effect, just point me in the right direction and I'll be quiet.

 

Ok, so I was thinking: is it not true that cities are the most environmentally friendly habitat for human beings? Consider the evidence, taking New York as an example. It seems to me the two biggest environmental problems that we humans cause are destruction of habitats and the use of fossil fuels. As per the first, while it may be true that whatever habitats once existed on the island of Manhatten are pretty much obliterated, the fact that all those people are living in such a condensed space means that they take up far less space per person than practically anywhere else. If every New Yorker had an acre of land, how much additional wilderness would have to be destroyed?

 

As per the second, it seems like huge apartment buildings would have to be the most energy efficient way to live, just on the basis of the ratio of volume to surface area, and the fact that apartments in the city tend to be far smaller than houses outside of it. A house would consume many times the amount of fossil fuels as an apartment just to keep it warm. Now consider energy used in travelling. Nobody in New York really needs a car. Why? Well, for one thing, they live literally on top of one another. So what accounts for the majority of travel time outside the city, travelling past other people's residences, is done in an elevator, not a car. And elevators, because they are counterweighted, are the most efficient mechanized transportation in existence. Not only that, but for the same reason, everything is much closer together by horizontal travel. There is not often somewhere one needs to go that would be inconvenient just to walk to, and that uses no fossil fuels at all. When it is too far to walk, people tend to take the subway, which because of the sheer volume of passengers and the fact that trips tend to be short (again, because everything is close together), must also be extremely efficient per person. At least, far more than elsewhere, where most travel is done by car.

 

I guess what I'm saying is, the best thing we can do for the environment is not to make hybrid cars or energy efficient homes or recycle our aluminum cans, but to get serious about stopping suburban (or, even worse, "exurban") sprawl. So if you want to help the Earth, don't move out into the country and grow your own vegetables; move to New York. :)

 

Now you should all tell me why I'm wrong, because I need to settle an argument about this.

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There are many people who would argue with you. I myself and not sure exactly how to answer this - the answer depends upon a number of factors.

 

Cities are great for the environment in that they reduce the amount of area people take up, yes. Cities, however, are not the whole picture - have you ever seen food grown in a city? If you have, it wasn't much. Food is produced outside of cities, in agricultural areas. These agricultural areas are very dense monocultures, and this is arguably very bad for the environment - an area that may contain hundreds of thousands, or millions, of plant and insect species is reduced to a few plants and a few thousand insects, if that.

 

That isn't so good for the environment, is it?

 

True, driving around consumes more gas, and pollutes more, if you are driving across a rural area to a friend on the other side of town than it does if you are walking a few streets away to a friend, in a city. On the other hand, those few blocks of city streets have less biodiversity than a few yards of open land, and while suburban areas are hardly open land, that may be beside the point.

 

Or maybe it's not the point. If you are comparing suburban areas to urban areas, and leaving everything else out, I'd have to agree - suburban areas, as they exist in California at least, are terrible for the environment. The grass on people's lawns here in CA is not native - and it requires water imported over huge distances, at great environmental costs, to sustain that perfect green color home-owners love. And of course most of suburban land is cement. That's even worse, perhaps.

 

It just isn't all that accurate to describe urban areas as ideal, in my opinion. An ideal community would be spread out, with various centers of distribution for food and other commodities, but the area inbetween homes would not be road - it would be open space, or non-monoculture farmland, where people produce locally what they consume locally.

 

In the near future (in my lifetime, as a 24 year old) transportaion will have much less negative impact on environments. Combustion cars will become more and more efficient, especially as oil prices rise, until combustion cars are replaced by solar powered cars, or at least electricity-powered cars using clean-generated electricity. At least, that is my hope - who knows what will happen. If this does come to pass, or if the average fat american gets on his bike every now and then, instead of in a car, traveling a few miles more to visit a friend won't be such a terrible thing. And instead of having a huge number of people in a small area, suffering claustrophobia, slowly forgetting what it is like to be alone, or around nature that man does not control utterly (more control = less perspective, I'd say), we could have healthy populations of people living in harmony with the rest of the planet. That's a little lofty, I know, but it's better to dream about something good than attempt to defend something bad (urban areas) by pointing out how much better they can be than something worse (suburban areas).

 

This is all assuming we are talking abour urban areas such as exist today. An urban area in which large portions of human habitats are underground, or at least covered by gardens, are another matter altogether. You can get pretty creative with this sort of concept, too. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter whether or not we're talking about urban or suburban or rural - it matters how the community is designed, as any population-density level can be either great or terrible for the world at large ... it just depends upon how it is designed.

 

And now for something completely different.

 

Urban areas have the largest population densities. The higher the population density, the higher the incidence and spread of disease. Large cities suffer the worst outbreaks of just about everything (not counting loneliness ... certainly not that).

 

Sorry if this post seems a little scattered - I am drinking some wine, but I couldn't resist responding.

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I do, of course, understand that not everyone can live in cities. Some things, most obviously agriculture, require big open spaces. The resulting reduction in biodiversity because of current farming methods seems like a separate issue to me. I'm not sure how consolidating human population centers would affect that.

 

Anyway, I was chiefly comparing urban areas to suburban areas, and the so-called "exurban" areas, roughly defined as residential and commerical land at suburban density but not centered around any urban or industrial core. Such places utterly destroy native ecology, and consume ridiculous amounts of energy (and thus fossil fuels) per person.

 

I might perhaps agree with your "ideal" community, one spread out but having a mininum affect on its environment, but I don't really think it's possible. How could you do away with roads? The more spread out people are, the more roads you need per capita. Even a perfectly clean automobile running on cleanly generated electricity needs to drive on a paved road. Even mass transportation becomes far less efficient, because you still need to travel farther. Also, there simply isn't room for everyone to live that way. What do you suppose would happen if every New Yorker left the city and tried to move to a commune in the wilderness? There would be no more wilderness to move to. You would just have one vast, spread out city, instead of a condensed and efficient one.

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cities do have some properties that are good for wildlife... Tall building mimic the cliffs where hawks and falcons live. They thrive on the local pigeon population, which has serious need to be kept in check. The builidings in a surburb aren't tall enough for these hawks.

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I definately agree that suburbs, as they exist today, are far worse than urban areas. They are basically spread out urban areas, only the extra land is not left to the native plants and animals, but rather replaced by lawns and extra roads. However, that's just the way they are - not the way they need to be. I can imagine a suburban Orange County (a good example, I think, of suburbia gone wrong) without the lawns and extra parking lots, and it would be pretty nice. Part of the problem is that everyone wants to have a car, when they don't need one. Change the people, and part of the problem goes away - in most of these communities, both urban and suburban, people live near enough to the necessities that they could do most of their shopping by bicicle (I myself do). Even if most people retained their cars, we would need far fewer lanes, and that could make a huge difference.

 

I personally like the idea of having very spread out communities, but a well-built city certainly has the potentially to, in an ecologically friendly way, maximize human population. Cities with roof-top gardens, subways (which can be used in spread out communities, or suburbs, as well, though not as effectively), and plenty of parks would be a great way for humans to coexist with rather than dominate nature. Cities also make recycling much easier. More importantly, if people continue to live in cities, it may be possible for the human population to stabilize or even grow some without overwhelming the planet - the 6 or so billion people on the planet now simply can't find enough land to spread out, as per my ideal.

 

I think you're right about farming - while it may be worthwhile to consider the effects of having a majority of the population growing their own food, on their own land, this just isn't going to happen until robotics develops to the point where people wouldn't have to do the work themselves. For the most part, large farms will be needed, and the issue of whether or not monocultures are used is a separate one.

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