The Urban Solution

In my thinking, everyone who really cares about saving the planet would be strong advocates for city living, promoting high-rise development and density in or on the fringes of all major cities. The same goes for those of us faced with challenging questions about the best way to promote rural development, reduce poverty, enhance healthcare and education, and save the planet: Cities are the answer. Good cities are, in fact, the only long-term solution to climate change.

Cities create living spaces of maximum density, with smaller housing using less energy, and much less need for travel by car. With most travel by subway, buses and on foot (and vertically via elevator), city dwellers use far less energy than their rural and suburban counterparts. Dense cities (New York, Mumbai, London, Nairobi) emit far less carbon per person than sprawling cities (New Delhi, Houston, Shanghai, Los Angeles), especially those in hot climates where every indoor space is air-conditioned. The nightmare comes when the booming cities of the developing world achieve the density, but without high-rise buildings, subways and decent city services.

In case you were wondering, I am unapologetic about my love for cities, those glorious mash-ups of people, ideas, art, culture, cuisine, entrepreneurial energy and intellectual ferment. And it’s not just me – according to this study by the Brookings Institution 84% of all Americans now live in (or very close by) cities; rural America has long since emptied out. China, India, Africa – many of the poorest areas of the globe are citifying at astonishing rates. In Vietnam, I’ve seen this process with my own eyes – people who used to live on the outskirts of Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City on small farms are suddenly, without having had to change places, within the city itself enjoying the shade from tall buildings sprouting up as if by magic from what were formerly rice fields and groves of dwarf orange trees. Even more are on the move; despite the best attempts of the government to stop them, poor landless farmers are pouring illegally into Vietnam’s cities.

At their best, cities are where social solutions come from, where people from all backgrounds can meet each other, find profitable employment or opportunities, learn a trade, develop new ideas, engage in commerce and culture, leave behind some of the baggage of cast and kin. Cities are energy-efficient, requiring shorter commutes to work, a smaller per-person footprint for housing, and much less daily energy use per person. Far more than rural communities, cities offer a pathway to economic success. There are plenty of poor people in cities, to be sure, but this is due to their attractiveness. Poor people are flooding into cities all around the world because cities offer what the countryside does not – a chance to make a decent living.

For the person used to the quaint old cities of Europe, the urban theme parks of Paris, London or New York, or the manicured sprawl of Los Angeles, cities in Asia and Africa seem to have gone horribly wrong. A walk around the fetid slums of Dakar or Mumbai confirms this impression; basic services like water and sanitation are obviously lacking, jumbles of electrical connections appear one short-circuit away from blowing up in a shower of sparks, and the streets are filled with the refuse of daily living. Clashing smells assault the senses: food grilled out in the open, live animals, garbage, fragrant fruits, sugary tea overflowing teapots and sizzling on hot charcoal.

It might all not look or smell pretty, but this is the future of the developing world and most of its inhabitants. People are already voting with their feet, migrating in vast numbers into urban agglomerations both new and old. Governments and aid workers would be wise to understand and support this movement, instead of trying too hard to stop it by making cities less attractive or expensive, or by attempting to improve the countryside or suburbs. It will be nearly impossible for poor countries to bring the benefits of development to all their rural residents; rather than bringing the services to the villages, these countries should seek to bring the villagers into the cities.

Cities should be dense, vertical and well-served by public transit; this maximizes the use of space, reduces the carbon footprint, and minimizes the use of cars. If everybody in India, China and three or four other populous countries adopts the driving habits of American or Canadians, our home planet is doomed to a future of rapid warming due to the massive amount of carbon that will be emitted. Instead, national policies should promote high-rise urban density, and leave the countryside to the farmers and for nature. Indeed, as history has show, this will also naturally bring down the birth rate and reduce population growth. It’s hard to raise five kids in a 900 square foot apartment. My rural Italian grandparents grew up in families of a dozen kids or more; for their urban grandchildren, one or two is the norm. I have more siblings than nieces and nephews.

On a very small scale, I have had a front seat to the multiple benefits of investing in urban density in downtown Oakland, surrounding the headquarters of the East Meets West Foundation. For many of the past 21 years, I have worked in Oakland, a city that is notable for many lovely neighborhoods and a pathetic downtown. That is changing, however, thanks to the urban policies of former mayor Jerry Brown. It used to be that downtown Oakland would be a ghost town after 5pm, as all the workers in the government offices and few downtown office buildings packed up and left for home right at quitting time. With dark streets, few open businesses, housing mostly two or three-story buildings and a few dilapidated old apartment buildings, the place felt gloomy, deserted and scary after nightfall.

Over the past decade or so, however, hundreds of new units of housing have been developed on the grounds of what were old parking lots, abandoned auto-repair shops and other low-density, low-value properties. These buildings are all green construction, very pleasant modern apartments and condominiums, and they have brought thousands of new residents to revitalize the Oakland city center. The result has been astonishing – dozens of new bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other venues. The city center feels transformed, alive and vibrant. There is still a long way to go, however, and the effects of the recession and government inaction over the past few years has meant that the early promise has not been fully realized. Here once again, we see the importance of government policy and leadership in driving development, with the private sector and non profit organizations only able to do their good work in the context of an appropriate policy environment.

It’s only my opinion, but I think the only true environmentalist is an ardent urbanist. In my view, the first person who figures out how to build high-quality, affordable high-rises in Mumbai and other Indian cities should get the environmentalist of the century award, since that person will have to negotiate the mind-warping complexities of local politics, powerful interest groups, bank financing and a thousand other things. He or she will have done more to save the planet than all the environmental groups in the world.

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East Meets West President John Anner’s blog provides a distinctive, accessible and sometimes humorous take on emerging issues and trends in the international development community. John’s observations are informed by years of traveling to and living in developing countries and meeting with some of the best minds in the field. EMW is one of the largest and longest-serving international development organizations in Vietnam. EMW is now working in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, India and the Phillipines. John has been at EMW since 2003 and travels frequently to all areas served by EMW.

1 Comment »

  1. East Meets West » Off the Rails in Timor Leste said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    [...] rather than kids being pulled from school to help on the family farm. I tend to believe that more and better cities are environmentally preferable to keeping people in rural areas, and that microfinance is a way to [...]

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