As ever larger portions of our world’s population move into cities, the growth of these cities and the resources they demand create more and more strains on local ecosystems. While urban spaces certainly do to offer a number of opportunities for many people, they don’t come without their costs. Very rarely have we collectively stopped to consider what our increasing urban identity means to our long-term survival and to the health and well-being of our planet as a whole.
Statistics of Urbanization
One of the most dramatic shifts our civilization has experienced in the past century is that we have gone from being a predominantly rural people to a mostly urban society. The small, agrarian communities, hamlets and townships that dotted the countryside in pre-industrial societies have been dying out as more and more people have migrated into urban areas where the promise of wealth, upward mobility and salaried jobs are abundant.
On a worldwide scale, over 54% of people live in urban areas and that figure is only going to increase in certain areas. One study estimates that by the year 2050 over 2/3 of our population will live in cities.
In some areas, the urban, industrial growth of cities has completely consumed the countryside. Countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda, Macao, Cayman Islands, Sint Maarten and Monaco are now considered to have 100% of their population living in the cities. From the perspective of sustainable development, this entails that almost all of the foodstuffs and other basic necessities of life must be imported into these spaces.
Why did our species change the countryside for the cityscape; the slow-paced farm life for the frenzied life of urban centers?
How We Became an Urban Species
There are a number of different causes for the urbanization of our species, and each rural region has its own history of how it became depopulated. The rural Appalachian communities of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee can blame patterns of land ownership. In some counties of this region, over 90% of the people have migrated out of the region since the 1960s and into the cities of the Midwestern United States. At the same time, over 90% of the land in those counties was owned by absentee owners, mainly land companies and coal corporations. The correlation between land ownership and migration is evident in that case.
In most other small, rural, agrarian communities, however, the rapid depopulation followed from a conscientious, planned public policy aimed at moving farmers off the land and in to the cities where the growing industries needed an excess of cheap labor.
The era of the Second World War brought with it the pinnacle of industrialism. It was during these years of the “great war” that peasant agriculture suffered most. The supposed “triumph” of the United States in World War II was considered by many as proof of the superiority of the United States economic and social system centered around Industrialism.
The new agricultural policies of this time did not improve the situation of the rural population unless they had large tracts of land. These policies were geared towards the market and eventually left the rural population dependent on external forces and government policies. It was a clear strategy to weaken the peasantry’s sovereignty and self-sufficiency by opening the American agrarian economy to the world capitalist market.
During this time the United States government created The Committee for Economic Development. The purpose of this government committee was to get people to leave family farms and prevent the children of farmers from staying in agricultural work.
The alleged reason for this plan was to avoid the mass unemployment of young people returning from the war in Europe, but it could have been just as well a ploy to secure cheap labor for the country’s growing industrial centers. This committee considered that there was an excess of people and workers in the country’s agrarian regions and that this had to change if the United States were to continue to develop as an industrial and capitalist power.
For a country like the United States that emerged as the world’s only superpower after World War II but still had a large part of its population living in rural areas, peasant life must have been considered by policy makers as backwards, unsustainable, and synonymous with poverty; a characterization that did not fit with the projected image of a modern and industrial superpower. Hence the need to forcefully change rural demography to ensure an exodus of workers from the countryside to the city.
Effects of Increased Urbanization and Urban Sprawl
The effects of this committee and subsequent agricultural policies of the United States ruined the conditions for small, family-owned, subsistence agriculture. The industrial revolution and capitalism brought with them the ideas of endless growth and progress (also a disease known as cancer) that replaced the previous notions of stability, sustainability and continuity that characterized peasant communities.
When you fly into Chicago, New York, Los Angles or pretty much any other city in the United States or the industrialized world, the view from your airplane window will show you an endless expanse of human altered environments. The neat squares of corn and wheat fields, the perfectly planned circles of suburban neighborhoods, and even the straight rows of forests planted by the timber industry are all signs of our human influence on the natural environment.
What is most worrying, however, is the lack of almost any sort of natural, wild, and untouched places. Our civilization, together with fossil fueled power technology has completely altered entire landscapes to the point that one can drive for hours on end without ever seeing a truly natural place.
We have, of course, our national parks and national wilderness areas; places that some of us like to escape to once a year to experience the greatness of the natural world. There is a huge problem, however, in relegating the natural world to a few small spaces while taking the rest of the world for our human interests.
One of the most troublesome signs of our human influence on the planet is urban sprawl. From outer space at night, the east coast of the United States from New York to Washington DC is almost one continuous illuminated line. There is no traceable line where one city ends and the next begins.
As more and more people have moved into cities, these urban centers have expanded continuously to make room for the burgeoning urban population. In South America, poor peasants from the countryside make their way into the cities in search of work. Without any place to live, they are forced to move into the mountains surrounding the cities situated in the valleys. Almost every major South American city is now circled by “favelas” of poor, often violent ridden neighborhoods built on the sides of mountains where forests once stood.
In the industrialized world, wealthier people have moved out of the city into the ever expanding suburbs; partly to showcase their wealth and partly to maintain their segregation from poorer minorities who occupy the city centers.
As urban areas continue to grow, more and more farm land, forests, and other “intact” ecosystems will be paved over with cement to make room for suburban homes, shopping malls, and other elements of our industrial society.
The effects of human beings on the natural world are causing mayhem for the rest of the species that we share the planet with. What might appear obvious to most of us is being confirmed by scientific investigations. Recent studies have shown astounding phenotypic changes in certain species that live near areas of urban sprawl.
One interesting example is that brown trout are now significantly smaller today than they were several decades ago, largely because of fish ladders that affects the entire predator-prey dynamic. While the size of brown trout might not seem of importance to us humans who are engrossed in our everyday livelihoods that are completely divorced from the natural world, we shouldn’t forget that we are also a part of the natural world and the breakdown of ecosystem functioning will also affect us along those long predator-prey relationships.
Other studies have shown that the growth of humanity as a primordially urban species, especially since the Industrial Revolution has negatively affected the biodiversity of plant and animal life and the natural world as a whole. Ecology has proven that the more biodiversity a system is, the more resilient and stable it is as well. The loss of biodiversity that we are causing not only affects unheard of species across the world, but also directly affects our long-term ability for survival.
Can Cities Be a Sustainable Part of the Landscape?
If we are going to continue to grow as an urban species, the main question we must ask ourselves is if cities can indeed become a sustainable part of the landscape. Advocating for a large-scale return to the countryside might seem unfeasible at this point in time. However, as the supply lines along our globalized, industrial economic system begin to falter, we will need more people in direct contact with the land. We need hands that are willing to be directly involved in caring for the earth and making it produce in sustainable fashion for our collective needs.
Cities aren’t going away, however, for those people who do decide to continue to make their livelihoods in urban regions, they will need to find ways to reconnect with their places. Recently, people have begun to discuss the idea of a “foodshed”, or a geographic region around major urban cities that contributes the food for the urban population.
Just as all of us live in a watershed where the water that flows into and away from our homes ends up in one place, we should also seek to create a network of belonging to the places that provide us with the food sustenance that keeps us alive. The idea of foodsheds can help urban dwellers to take more responsibility for their livelihoods and to actively participate in taking care of the rural areas around their homes that provide them with what they need to survive.
If cities are truly going to become a sustainable part of the landscape, they first need to find ways to reengage with those natural areas closest to them and develop relationships that respect the rural populations and assist in maintaining the ecological resiliency of those places.
One thing is certain: the “future” of humanity cannot be seen in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. If we ever became 100% urban, we’d have to learn to extract sustenance from the sun through photosynthesis as do plants. People who choose to live in cities need to understand that their livelihoods are connected to very real and tangible places and that in order to be sustainable, they need to participate in the protection of those places as well.