In the evolutionary blink of an eye, our species has gone from being primarily rural dwelling, agrarian cultures to fast-paced, transient urban peoples. According to the UN, by the year 2050, two out of every three people will live in urban areas. This massive demographic shift that has occurred mostly in the last century obviously has huge ramifications for the sustainability of our modern-day civilization. It is possible to sustain a world of 10 billion people when close to 7 billion of those people live in concrete jungles dependent on resources not found in close proximity to where they live?
Another recent UN Report titled “Wake Up Before it´s Too Late” believes that the only way that we can sustainably feed our growing population while not creating an ecological wasteland is through regenerative agricultural systems that are implemented on the scale of small family farms. This obviously will require us to re-think the trend of increasing urbanization of our species and re-populate rural areas that have been abandoned or handed over to extractive industries and monoculture, industrial mega-farms.
Despite the need to re-ruralize as a species, there are always going to be people living in urban areas. Below we offer three design elements that represent a paradigmatic shift towards sustainability in urban areas.
Respect Biophysical Limits
Urban spaces tend to reinforce the idea of limitlessness, a staple of our consumer-driven, industrial culture. The urban metabolism which feeds on seemingly infinite amounts of resources trucked and flown into the cities from around the world before spitting out its waste into forgotten, rural areas, is wasteful, profligate, immoral, and dependent on a the economic fallacy that sees the natural world as an infinite mine of resources and a bottomless pit for our waste.
Cities need to find ways to accept the finite resources of the planet. On one level, this acceptance of the natural limits the world imposes will soon become an economic necessity as increasing scarcity of oil and other resources will make it more and more difficult to feed the urban metabolism.
Learning to respect the biophysical limits of the natural world is much easier to do in rural settings where we can develop a physical proximity to the sources of our consumption. When we see the springs that bring water into our home, touch the soil that produces our food, or go to church with the farmers who provide us with our milk and cheese, we are better able to understand the delicate balance that must be respected for our needs to be met.
Cities, however, don´t enjoy that same proximity to the resources of the natural world, thus making it more difficult to understand the very real biophysical limits. The best ways for cities to learn to respect biophysical limits, then, is through developing mutually beneficial relationships with the rural areas surrounding the city limits.
Urban dwellers should know where the source of the water that flows into their homes originates. They should be involved in protecting the rivers, springs, and other elements of the watersheds that sustain them. If people are not willing to physically go and plant a tree by the river that gives them the water they consume, perhaps a municipal tax on every cubic foot of water consumed could go to fund the efforts of nearby rural and agrarian communities that are actively protecting the watershed.
Similarly, related to the food that flows into cities, instead of flying in food produced around the world to satisfy the cosmopolitan, urban diet, city dwellers need to develop meaningful relationships with local farmers in their “food-shed.” This relationship needs to go beyond the weekend farmers´ market to the point of having urban people commit to supporting the production of local farmers, accepting the seasonality of food, and thus participating in the regenerative agriculture strategies needed to sustainably feed the world. The Farm to Table Program in Louisville is a great example of cities attempting to move to more sustainable relationships with their surrounding farmers.
Transportation and Accessibility: The Grid
One of the embodiments of the unsustainability of our current civilization is seen every time a person gets into his or her car to drive three blocks to the local grocery store. Our dependence on the automobile is unhealthy and a major source of carbon emissions. Cities of all sizes need to find ways to cut back dependence on the car.
While some of our nation´s largest cities have developed efficient public transportation systems, the smaller to mid-size towns aren´t only completely lacking in any sort of public transit, but have also been designed for cars and not pedestrians.
While the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once called the 11 major avenues and 155 crosstown streets of New York City´s burgeoning grid system a "relentless monotony”, these grid systems for urban development have several benefits to sustainability.
According to one paving company, effectively developed and planned grid systems allow for shorter travel times, and the highest facilitation of social interaction while also being pedestrian friendly. If your home is located in a suburb that is several miles from the nearest grocery store, farmers market, or restaurant, the car becomes increasingly necessary. When cities grow compact and denser, however, cars can give way to foot traffic and public transit.
Defensible Space Theory
The architect and city planner Oscar Newman came up with the Defensible Space Theory as a way to supposedly help urban communities reduce the amount of inner city violence. According to the theory, Newman believed that idea is that crime and delinquency can be controlled and mitigated through environmental design and by having building layout and site plans developed where people can take responsibility for protecting the shared spaces where they live.
The essence of the Defensible Space Theory believes that an area is safer when people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for that piece of a community. While urban violence is certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with, the principle behind this theory can and should extend to other aspects of urban sustainability.
Instead of living a commuter life where urban people have no real, economic connection to the actual, tangible places where they live nor to the community with whom they share a territory, developing a sense of ownership and responsibility for the physical places where we live can allow for attitudes of sustainability to develop.
When city dwellers feel a sense of collective ownership with their neighborhood, barrio, or block, it gives them more motivation and incentive to turn the abandoned lot into a thriving urban farm. A deeper sense of responsibility to place will allow urban communities to forge collective alliances with nearby rural communities where mutually beneficial relationships can develop.
By learning to accept biophysical limits, increase the denseness of cities and improve public transportation systems, and accepting ownership and responsibility of the places where they live, urban communities can begin to develop more sustainable ways of life.