Are cities good or bad for the environment?

I’ve noticed a trend among a great deal of the environmentalist movement to long for a return to nature in the most literal sense: moving away from the cities and resuming an agrarian existence. I’m an environmentalist as well (tomorrow’s headline: Sun Rises In East) and this bothers me for a couple of reasons. It seems to me, in fact, that making cities denser would be better for the environment than permitting the population to disperse.

Primo, the more people there are in a smaller space, the easier it is for them to share resources, and the more of a population base there is for environmentally-sound large-scale alternatives such as public transport, recycling programs, and what have you. To be blunt, if you live on a farm, you can’t practically choose not to use gasoline. If you live in a big city, you can.

Secundo, I don’t see how we could disperse the population over a wide area without taking over even more wilderness than we already have. By contrast, if we were to move towards a more centralized idea of city planning, I wager we would be able to greatly reduce the amount of wilderness we sprawl over. Q: Is there a difference between cutting down a forest to put in an industrial farm and cutting down a forest to put in a subdivision?

Tertio, I’m not really sure that cities would have as much of an effluent impact as a widely-dispersed population. It seems to me that if you are going to pollute, you might as well do it all in one place.

In my Canadian Cities course the other year, we reviewed some historical evidence that the last time that there was a major cultural movement against cities, based on their being physically, environmentally (and morally) harmful, combined with an advocacy of a literal return to nature, the result was the spread of suburbs, which seem to me to be possibly the least environmentally sound option of the three.

I think that since cities are the nodes of civilization, it will be easier to provoke a mass movement towards more responsible environmental behaviour in an urban context than outside of one, and that adapting the cities to a more environmentally sound existence (in particular, reducing the use of motor vehicles) will be much easier and more environmentally effective than trying to disperse the population.


In my opinion, the environmental movement is populated by two types, the rational and the irrational. The rational environmentalists think of ways to keep the conveniences of modern life in a more environmentally manner. The irrational environmentalists are the type that refer to humans as a cancer on the earth. The truly irrational environmentalists are the type that think these sorts of things while commuting in heavy traffic alone in a Ford Expidition, but that’s a whole other issue.

As for cities, I agree that people living at high densities is probably better for the environment than attempting to live at low densities. On the other hand, I simply hate the ideas of Le Corbusier and his contemporaries, who envisioned humans in massive apartment buildings in the middle of vast parks. This was about the time that “urban renewal” was blighting our cities with massive ugly projects, such as Boston’s City Hall Plaza.

I think that increasing urbanization is a good thing, organizing people around mass transit, decreasing dependance on automobiles, etc. Also, I think cities are an economic necessity. And leaving aside those who are opposed to economic progress on principle, more money and technology is a good thing for the environment, as the trend towards more efficient cars indicates.

The best writer on the subject of cities I’ve ever come across is Jane Jacobs. At the time of massive urban renewal schemes and superhighway construction, she was a lone voice arguing for small blocks of mixed uses. Her Death and Life of Great American Cities thoroughly demonstrates the errors of modern attempts to plan for efficient cities. In The Economy of Cities, which I’m reading now, she goes further to show how it is cities, with their ability to add new types of work or replace old types, that are the source of economic strength.

Of course, she approaches the issue from the perspective of people and economics, not the environment. But she has a singular ability to understand how cities work, or why they don’t, as the case may be.

From what I’ve heard and read, yes cities are environmentally friendlier – per capita, of course – than rural or suburban regions, for all the reasons mattgave.

I heard a interesting statistic a couple of years ago. Apparently, today New York State (and the Northeast in general) is being reforested at the fastest rate since the arrival of the white man. Why? Because when naked farmland gets turned into homes, developments and parks, trees go up.

New York City land area = 205,952 acres (including more than 10% parks)

NYC population (1990) = 7,322,564 persons

NYC density = 35.55 persons/acre

United States population (1990) = 248,709,873 persons

Area required for entire US population at NYC densities =
248,709,873/35.55 = 6,995,131 acres

That’s about 11,000 sq.mi. or 1/4 the size of Pennsylvania or the size of a largish county in one of the western states.

Even assuming that all the land currently under cultivation in this country stays that way, that’s still a lot of land left over in which the deer and the antelope can play.

Course 11 rules!

Aren’t there environmental problems in getting resources concentrated so they can be moved to cities? The example that comes to my mind is water. This is quite noticable out West, where the Colorado River doesn’t even reach the ocean any more because it is dammed up to provide water and electricity for farms in cities in deserts (where farms and cities shouldn’t be). I realize that this is an extreme case, but look at all the reservoirs that are required to keep NYC happy. What about waste disposal (both solid and sewer)? Having a greater concentration of people means producing a greater concentration of these wastes.


I’ve heard similiar things myself. One one end of the spectrum there are folks who wish for massive arcologies where millions of people live in a relatively small area. The other extreme I’ve heard is people going back to some sort of subsitance farming. I know that neither of those options sound good to me but luckily there are all sorts of other ideas to choose from.


There are other things to consider then just the impact on the environment. Quality of life is something that immediatly comes to mind. Personally I wouldn’t like living in dense population centers like San Francisco or New York. Most of the population of the United States as well as Canada already live in urban areas. I also think that new technologies will eliminate the need for wide scale public transportation.


What good does centralized city planning do for those of us who won’t live in a city?


Not really. Both are done for the benefit of humans.


Being as most people currently live in urban areas isn’t most of the pollution already concentrated there? I moved from Dallas, Texas to a rural area in Arkansas and I can tell you that the air is a lot different.

Although I’m not a fan of huge cities it does seem rather foolish to encourage everyone to run out and live in the country.


That I really didn’t answer your question Matt. It might suprise you to know tha I consider myself an environmentalist. Unlike some others I don’t want to protect the environment for the sake of protecting the environment. I want to protect the environment because it is good for humans to do it. I don’t object to every dam that is built nor do I lament the passing of every species. What I do want is clean air, clean water, and enough of nature that I can go out during the weekend and take a hike. I believe that technology is the key to solving most of our environmental problems. I don’t think the answer is increasing the population density of cities.


I was heavily involved in a similar debate some time ago. Apparently, my ideas were less than popular.

Well, it depends on how you look at it. Taking six billion people and dispersing them throughout the environment wouldn’t serve to change much, in my opinion. The amount of land required for resources wouldn’t change. If population control measures were implemented, then the concept of dispersion as an environmentally friendly alternative would be viable. As for the option of centralizing population, that’s another story. Again, there would still be a huge area required for agriculture. The difference in impact would be that of habitation. Centralizing the population would decimate ecology in a more localized fashion and would not impede population growth. This second option would require some technological and political advances to work in a way so as not to inhibit the use of modern luxuries and actually achieve an improvement in environmental impact.

There most certainly is. I’ll back this up with some figures if you’d like, but utilizing a given area for agricultural purposes provides resources to a far greater number of people than utilizing the same area for habitation (of the subdivision type).

You can’t exactly localize air pollution.

I completely agree.

I definitely believe that that option is the most viable, but in the thread I linked above, I found a lot of opposition to the idea. People resist change. In general, we are a self-centered bunch and only give a damn about the environment as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us. Implementing such changes would require some serious incentives to get the cooperation of the populus.

I can’t look for a cite right this second, but I think that this is really a quirk of the way the US collects statistics on this subject. “Urban” in this case includes what most people would normally call “suburban” or “exurban,” which, to my mind anyway (and I think WRT the OP), constitute a seperate classification. IIRC, there are now more “suburban” or “exurban” dwellers in the US than there are either city or rural.

This may be true, but not in an interesting way. That is, the suburban environment is going to be hostile to animals no matter how many more trees it has. Granted, it probably is less hostile to animals than farms, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to a natural forest environment. It never can be, or even should be. Suburban wildlife is limited to the kind that is non-threatening to humans.

I was including the suburbs as part of the urban landscape. Either way the population is still fairly concentrated. Drive outside the D/FW Metroplex and you’ll find plenty of open spaces with very few people. Same goes for driving through Arkansas.


Matt said:

I don’t know about “agrarian”, but certainly more and more people are, ironically, moving out of cities to get closer to nature.

I used to work for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, which is the nation’s second most densely populated state. Add to that RI’s (very small) size and you get land conservation on a tiny scale, as compared to most of the country. The purchase of a 30-acre parcel, or on Block Island, a 1-acre parcel, could be a huge victory. In a few RI towns, all open space will be either protected or developed within 20 years.

So looking at your question from this small-scale perspective, lets think about suburban housing developments. People love to live in “the country”, which to someone in RI means having five acres of land. So developers will carve up a 40-acre parcel of land into eight five-acre plots. Given that 40-acre parcel, it would be more environmentally sound to create a “cluster zone” of homes all located at one corner of the parcel, leaving 35 or so acres undeveloped.

In general, the more contiguous open space, the better.

MG: I also think that new technologies will eliminate the need for wide scale public transportation.

I kinda doubt it. I know you are hopeful about the prospects of “smart car” technologies that will reduce traffic jams, etc. etc., and such developments probably will make it somewhat easier to absorb heavy car traffic in densely populated areas. But private automobile transportation has intrinsic limits that no new technologies are going to overcome. It will always take up more room and materiel to move around a ten-to-twenty-feet-long, five-to-eight-feet-wide, two-to-four-ton vehicle than it will to move around a one-to-three-feet-long, two-to-three-feet-wide, one-to-three-hundred-pound person. The vehicles will always require more storage space too, as well as more resources to supervise and assist them in their travels. (They may not always emit more pollution, though, if clean fuel technologies continue to progress.)

So when you have lots of people in a densely inhabited city, many of whom are going to approximately the same destinations at the same times, it will always be more efficient to pack some of them more densely in mass transit vehicles than to ship each of them around individually (or even in pairs or threes) in their own separate roomy automotive cartons. That’s just the basic geometry of Euclidean three-space, and “new technologies” aren’t going to change it much.


And public transportation will always have limits that no new technology will overcome.

I didn’t say public transporation wouldn’t exist I just think we won’t see the need for public transporation that environmentalist are envisioning for the future.

To start with I don’t think Americans are all that concerned with whatever is the most efficent. There’s a certain satisfaction of being able to get into your vehicle and drive wherever you feel like when you feel like it. I don’t see people moving from the suburbs back into the cities in huge numbers any time soon. I see cars of the future producing less and less pollution. As you mentioned computer controls will elminate many of the traffic problems we see during rush hous.

I don’t see any compelling reason to build more public transporation.


Ha! Come to Vancouver sometime. We’ve got coyotes running free in the streets, and on the North shore Black bears stumble into backyards on a regular basis.

Heck, coyotes run wild in Toronto and LA as well.

As for the OP, I happen to think that higher population density is a good thing.

MG: I don’t see any compelling reason to build more public transporation.

Oh; when you said that new technologies will “eliminate the need for wide scale public transportation”, I figured you meant that we’d be getting rid of most of it, not just that we wouldn’t be building lots more. My mistake. We seem to be basically in agreement that both private transit and mass transit will always be important in densely populated areas, and the issue of how much of each we’re actually going to need is probably impossible to determine from where we sit now.