Could Big Cities Advance Human Sustainability? According to National Geographic, Maybe.

 Try this question. Which city uses energy more efficiently, Beijing or New York? How about this: New York or the country of South Africa? South Africa is largely rural and full of primitive towns. Beijing is part of a country that is both urbanizing and very rural. The answer is it’s roughly a three-way tie.
Huh? New York is a city of more than eight million energy-sucking people. New York is also the most energy-efficient city in the United States. Why? In a word: stacking. Most Gothamites live in apartments. This means most of them don’t have exposed roofs or more than two exterior walls. They heat buildings, not individual houses. They travel on mass transit in greater proportions than folks in Los Angeles, Louisville or Lubbock. And they often live within a few miles of where they work and within blocks of where they shop.
Residents of Seoul, South Korea use about half the energy per capita of New Yorkers. That’s partly due to the fact that Seoul has been a boom city for the last half century with its population more than tripling to 10 million residents living in newer, energy-efficient, middle class, small apartments in buildings lined up like a mega-falling-dominoes setup.
In the December installment of its year-long “Seven Billion” series, National Geographic presents a fascinating history – and prognosis – of well-managed cities as rescuers of human sustainability.
While the influx to cities is often viewed as a nightmare by many political leaders around the world, the long-term effects may be very good. While unplanned surges create many problems, including slums and shantytowns, the long-term prospects are for efficiencies of energy, transportation, food distribution, water, sewage treatment, and so on.

Crowded street in Dharavi section of Mumbai
A Dharavi street, Mumbai, India, Photo – Wikipedia

So while we humans are under-strategizing family planning, we may indeed be able to manage our negative impacts upon each other and upon the environment. According to Robert Kunzig, the National Geographic editor who wrote the article, “The City Solution,” 70 percent of people in developed countries and in Latin America live in cities. There are now 54 cities with at least five million inhabitants, compared to 1900 when London was the only one.
“If what you value most is nature, cities look like piles of damage – until you consider the alternative, which is spreading the damage,” says Kunzig. “Cities allow half of humanity to live on around 4 percent of the arable land, leaving more space for open country.”
Because the inhabitants of cities in poor countries consume much less and take up less space than their richer counterparts, those cities are even denser. But as long as poverty prevails, their efficiencies of space are balanced by a lack of safe water, appropriate toilets and garbage collection. Such is the case of Dharavi, one of Mumbai, India’s slums (the Academy Award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire offers graphic depictions of what we’re talking about). This area alone has between 600,000 and a million residents crammed into two-thirds of a square mile. And it’s not Mumbai’s most populous shantytown.  Manhattan, by contrast, has 1.6 million people living on 23 square miles and its America’s most densely populated county.
According to the United Nations, 72 percent of developing countries have adopted policies designed to stem urban migration. But David Satterwaite of London’s International Institute for Environment and Development – who advises slum-dweller associations (evidently there are such entities) and governments – says, “I don’t get scared by rapid growth. I meet African mayors who tell me, ‘There are too many people moving here.’ I tell them, ‘No, the problem is your inability to govern them.’”
Seoul went from three million to 10 million in 50 years. During that time, life expectancy rose from 51 to 79, a year better than for Americans. But here is one way the good news is reversing itself in countries. With greater affluence often comes a desire for more space. That means urban sprawl. Families – as opposed to singles and couples – commonly want to raise their kids where they play safely outside, right in front, or back, of the house. Governments are pressured to build highways and provide subsidies and other support for home ownership (welcome to the Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac debacles).
Sprawl leads to car-centered cultures unless planning dictates thoughtful mass transit and planning to build inward. Where we live in San Jose, local governments have recently caught onto the need for that constraint. They are encouraging inward growth with the development of condominiums and rental housing in the downtown area. Sprawl is being discouraged along with land preservation for parks and trails.
However, while people in India and China continue to flow into big cities, car sales are booming. Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, and Harvard University economist, says, “It would be a lot better for the planet,” if people in those countries move to, “dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car.”
So as long as we refuse to give the notion that there are enough of us already and that human population of over 10 billion is impractical at best, perhaps urbanization – combined with foresighted planning – may be the next best thing. In any case, humanity and the environment will pay a steep price.
Sustainability? According to National Geographic, Maybe.

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