To Urbanize or Not to Urbanize

10 02 2010

Do you ever wish that somebody would just tell us the answers?  It can get discouraging to try to address environmental issues when we receive such opposing scientific viewpoints as found in the two recent articles below.  The first one, from ScienceDaily, claims that urbanization is driving the destruction of forests globally which, as we know, is terrible for global warming.  The second article, from Conservation Magazine, claims that urbanization reduces energy demand and minimizes pressures on surrounding land and natural resources.  Obviously, that’s good for climate change.
“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”
“Environmentalists may also have to reconsider their traditional hostility to the growth of cities, some researchers say. “Paradoxically, cities also hold our best chance for a sustainable future,” Martine and Guzman argue. Not only do they tend to promote lower birthrates, but “if well designed and administered, the compactness and economies of scale of cities can reduce per capita costs, reduce energy demand, and minimize pressures on surrounding land and natural resources.” By some estimates, for instance, Tokyo with its 12.7 million people but superior mass transit system actually produces less carbon dioxide (the major warming gas) than San Diego, which has one-tenth the population but more car use. Other experts note that cities also tend to produce wealth that can be plowed into everything from clean energy technologies to land and biodiversity preservation.”

So what are we supposed to do?  Maybe it doesn’t matter where we live, but how we live.  We can’t just assume that moving into or moving away from cities will make the difference.  We need to think about the actions we take every day in terms of our impact on the planet.  Looking at the article from Conservation Magazine, urbanization in San Diego has not helped reduce emissions because it has not come with associated lifestyle changes.  As a former resident of San Diego I can attest to the dismal state of public transit in that city, and the spread-out nature of the city almost demands a car-based lifestyle.   Here in Kampala, about 90% of households still cook with charcoal, which is one of the primary causes of deforestation in Uganda, and the increasing urban wealth has spurred an exponential increase in the number of cars on the road.

Let’s face it – it is possible to have a huge negative impact on the planet wherever we live, and it is possible to reduce our impact wherever we live.  The science doesn’t need to confuse us on that point.  Those of us who are not in a position to influence the “large scale migrations of people into (or out of) the cities” can at least focus on our own actions and make choices every day that will help create a sustainable world.




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