So says Stewart Brand.
During a recent talk at MIT, the urbanist scholar Anthony Flint said, “Cities are the greenest form of human settlement humans can aspire to.” Taking an aerial view of Los Angeles in the ’80′s, one might have been less than certain. Today, with an ever growing number of people living in “megacities” (those with more than 10 million inhabitants), one might be even less certain.
With an energy-intensive lifestyle and panoply of diversions, the truth of Mr Flint’s statement is hardly self-evident.
Broadly speaking, “green” is shorthand for the concept of “ecologically friendly.” In other words, little to no harm is done to the environment through the process of extraction, production or distribution of goods and services. Applying the concept of “greenness” to cities is no small feat.
Large concentrations of human settlement by definition have a more visible, intense impact on the environment than dispersed populations. Whether through resource consumption – for example, the construction of housing – or waste generation – and its necessary incineration or other means of disposal – large concentrations of people are by definition *not green.*
So what gives?
My interpretation of the statement turns on “aspire to.” Cities today may not be green (and by contrast, perhaps even *less green than at other times in the past) but all things being equal, it is better for the environment to have 50,000 people living within a 50 square mile city than those same people spread across 500 square miles.
Through effective planning, efficient energy distribution, and elegant design, cities can serve the complex basket of needs of its citizens far better than dispersed rural communities can serve those same needs. A 2008 Brookings Institution study for example finds that metro area residents have a smaller carbon footprint – one increasingly common measure of “greenness” – than the average American.
New “model cities” – for example the much discussed Norman Foster project, Masdar City in the UAE – are promising to be “zero carbon and zero waste”- which is to say emit virtually no pollution. Through an integrated planning process unique to the opportunity of building a city from the ground, up Masdar could point toward the kind of cities Mr Flint imagines.
In the meantime, humans are adding urbanized spaces to the earth’s surface at a rate of about the size of London every month. Or, according to a recent Wired Magazine account, “we are adding the equivalent of seven New York’s to the planet every year.”
While the mental image of glassy skyscrapers and organized grid systems are conjured by these stats, the reality is that many of the inhabitants of these new urban zones occupy informal settlements on the outskirts. Achieving densities that may rival the vertical development that characterizes the urban core of many cities, these shanty towns – slums, favelas, squatter cities – are neither green, nor what most humans aspire to.
Coming back to the title of this point, slums are the new green, thinkers like Stewart Brand see these slums as the world’s solution to poverty. “Villages of the world,” he said in a 2006 TED Talk, “are emptying out.” People are going to cities to get out of poverty – its their access to the global economy. Squatter cities, “the cities of tomorrow,” as Robert Neuwirth calls them, are emerging nodes of innovation and enterprise. They are centers of opportunity.
And, says Mr Brand is a recent Wired Magazine interview, cities draw people away from subsistence farming, “which is ecologically devastating.”
But are these rapidly growing cities really sustainable, much less “green?” Related, if 70 percent of people will live in cities by 2050 – and if 3 billion of them are living in squatter settlements – how will we confront the challenges of energy production, water supply, waste management and food production that are truly “green”?