Cities and Sustainability
After spending tens of thousands of years living mostly in small settlements,
humans have entered an urban stage of evolution. That concentration of people
gives rise to some of the world's greatest problems, such as air and water
pollution, poverty-stricken slums and epidemics of violence and illness.
William Rees, an economist at the University of British Columbia takes and
ecological approach to economics. He is concerned that cities are growing too
large to be sustainable. Cities are centers of consumption and depend on the
surrounding environment to supply energy, food and to accept and disperse waste.
Rees has measured the ecological footprint of cities and his results are not
In less than a human lifespan, the face of Earth has been transformed. In
1950, only 29% of people lived in cities. Today that figure is 50.5% and is
expected to reach 70% by 2050. At the end of the 20th century, 1.1 billion people lived in large cities
with populations in the millions; their carbon dioxide emissions are greater
than the capacity of all the world’s forests to process the gas. One city person
requires at least five square hectares of high quality land to support him or
her. The 500,000 people living in the city of Vancouver on 11,400 hectares of
land actually require the output of 2.3 million hectares of land. The real
capital is not money but air, water, food and other natural resources.
City states are depleting these resources at an alarming rate – fish stocks
are depleted; soils are depleted, washed or blown away; fresh water supplies are
marginal, depleted or contaminated; the air is polluted and ozone depletion
combined with global warming from increased greenhouse gases threatens
progressive and erratic climate changes. Climate changes threaten agriculture,
as we know it.
Cities attract impoverished people seeking employment and broadcast economic
inequality without an easy solution. Poverty is concentrated in city slums,
informal settlements, with substandard housing and squalor. Slums lack
sanitation, clean water, electricity, fire control, hospitals and
schools. Law enforcement is minimal and often corrupt. Crime
flourishes. According to UN-Habitat, around 33% of the urban population in the
developing world in lived in slums; the highest concentrations existing in
cites in Sub-Saharan Africa (61.7%), South Asia (35%), Southeast Asia (31%),
East Asia (28.2%), West Asia (24.6%), Oceania (24.1%), Latin America and the
Caribbean (23.5%), and North Africa (13.3%). Among individual countries, the
proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the
Central African Republic (95.9%). Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of people
living in slums dropped, even as the total urban population increased. The
world's largest slum city is in Mexico City. The latest findings of The
Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Livability Ranking of 140 cities (2016)
show that livability has deteriorated in 29 of the 140 cities (20 per cent)
surveyed over the last 12 months.
Many scientists have imagined major disruptions of city-states with civil
disobedience and armed conflicts arising from the competition for scarce
resources. Solutions are available but are improbable, given our basic
A sane, rational city-state would limit its growth; limit its pollution and
progress toward food, water and air sustainability. If all long-distance
supplies were blocked could the citizens of a city continue to live comfortable,
healthy lives? One criterion of a sane city would be self-sufficiency. Water is
essential and availably is decreasing. A city must secure adequate, sustainable
water reserves and limit population growth.
To make cities more livable and less polluted, car use would be reduced to
less than half of current levels and car-free zones would restore healthier
living conditions for many citizens. For some urban dwellers, advanced
electronic networking would reduce the need for commuting and long-distance
travel would be considered a luxury and rationed. The need to transport food and
goods would be reduced by increased local production. The transportation of
goods would be streamlined into centrally controlled supply lines that achieve
maximal efficiency. We could advance toward intelligent distribution systems
such as large pneumatic or electromagnetic tubes that send containers between
city centers at high speed with minimal pollution. It is absurd to have goods
distributed in trucks, in traffic, chaotically with no cost effective
distribution plan. Food can be grown and processed within a city by returning
some of the land area to market gardens and intensive greenhouse technology.
Each city would have to renew and support a surrounding agricultural zone.
Cities would essentially backtrack about 100 years when food supply lines were
shorter and farmers living adjacent to the cities could supply most of the food.
Cities, like cancers have grown unchecked, metastasized and destroyed much of
the support system they used to enjoy.
The humanity of a city can be restored by creating living arrangements that
promote a return to groups of individuals that know each other and can relate to
each other – small communities. Local groups can relate to their natural
environment and can return to an understanding of how to supply their own needs.
If a group does not have a natural environment that they relate to, then
the group will be dysfunctional and members of the group will be sick animals.
If a group grows too large for individuals to know and relate to each, then the
group will be dysfunctional – sick humans.
In poor countries the images of attractive, well-dressed people whose main
job appears to be enjoyment and adventure create immediate dissatisfaction with
local life. The happy and adapted poor become the dissatisfied and
disenfranchised who abandon traditional ways of life for jobs that are often
transient, demeaning and fail to deliver the wealth necessary to achieve the
glamorous movie-magazine lifestyle. Humans continue to have basic needs – shelter, food, safety and sexual
privileges. Getting connected to affluent media in a poor village in Africa is
counterproductive without opportunities to apply new desires, knowledge and