When Will the Environmental Movement Embrace Cities?

Everyone has a few of those hippie friends. They love nature, so they live 50 miles from the city in a 10-acre “farm.”

Living in harmony with nature doesn't mean living in a Sierra Club calendar shot. Photo: ##http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/seeing_cities_as_the_environme.html## NRDC Switchboard##

They’re able to grow some of their own food. But they have to commute two hours round trip to get to job opportunities, not to mention the trek to the grocery, church, babysitter, etc. The whole arrangement is, ironically, environmentally toxic.

But as much as they might befuddle an urbanist, those friends are still well within the mainstream in the environmental movement, says Kaid Benfield at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog. It’s time nature-lovers throw off the old-fashioned notion that living in harmony with with the environment means living in an unspoiled wilderness, he says:

For a long time, America’s environmental community celebrated wilderness and the rural landscape while disdaining cities and towns. Thoreau’s Walden Pond and John Muir’s Yosemite Valley were seen as the ideal, while cities were seen as sources of dirt and pollution, something to get away from. If environmentalists were involved with cities at all, it was likely to be in efforts to oppose development, with the effect of making our built environment more spread out, and less urban.

We’ve come a long way since then, if still not far enough. We were and remain right to uphold nature, wildlife and the rural landscape as places critical to celebrate and preserve. But what we realize now, many of us anyway, is that cities and towns – the communities where for millennia people have aggregated in search of more efficient commerce and sharing of resources and social networks – are really the environmental solution, not the problem: the best way to save wilderness is through strong, compact, beautiful communities that are more, not less, 
urban and do not encroach on places of significant natural value. As my friend who works long and hard for a wildlife advocacy organization puts it, to save wildlife habitat we need people to stay in “people habitat.”

Compact living – in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools and the like assembled at a walkable scale – not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don’t drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure.  While recent authors such as Edward Glaeser and David Owen are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike San Diego explores Tijuana’s blossoming urban cycling movement. Bicyclelaw.com details how cyclists who suffer injuries at the hands of automobiles are routinely, and often groundlessly, blamed. And Bikeside LA shares a thoroughly ridiculous flowchart illustrating the bureaucratic maze cycling improvements must navigate before they hit the streets.

  • This is an argument I personally struggle with. I have lived in Upstate New York for my whole entire life. My hometown has 300 people in it, I had to drive a 28 mile round trip to get to and from my high school, and my school district was so wide that my best friend lived 45 minutes away from me…and I thought that was a short trip! I now work and live in Albany, NY and I’m still shocked at the fact that I can walk to the supermarket instead of driving 20 minutes (or more in the winter) to get there. Needless to say, I embrace city life but I still think about what I left behind in the country.

    Now, correct me if I’m wrong and I encourage you to do so because I’m curious about rural development. At least in Upstate NY, I can tell you that outside of areas like Albany or Buffalo- plans to urbanize rural communities are non-existent. The reasons are obvious- how can one justify making a community more compact when there isn’t a population to support it? I am a big proponent for urbanization; I plan to pursue Environmental and Urban Studies when I go to grad school next year, but I want to know what everyone thinks about how rural communities will sustain themselves in the future. I feel that we are gravitating more towards urban development yet leaving the rural communities in the dust.

    As I said before, I would love to learn more, so anything would be a tremendous help =D

  • Kaid @ NRDC

    Thanks so much for the mention, Angie.  Keep up the great work on StreetsBlog.

  • NM

    I’m a litle torn about this.  I’m not sure why there are scare quotes around “farm,” as it’s entirely possible to make a living on ten acres.  And yes, there may be a transition period while a new farmer needs to work in the city, but . . . aren’t growing food and raising animals some of the activities that do make sense outside the city?  And doesn’t someone need to live there to do it?  Do we want pigs and cows in the cities interfering with their density?  Are we trying to say that instead of an intensive, ten-acre farm we should leave the food production to industrial ag?

    I get why having an essentially urban lifestyle in a distant subdivision is wasteful, but disparaging a farm is counterproductive.  A farm can take several seasons to get the soil in order and really get it going.  In the meantime, it may look like a ‘house on ten acres with a few goats,’ and its owner may depend on the city, but the transition period is unavoidable. 

    Not sure why I just got so involved in that issue since I live in Brooklyn, but someone’s got to defend the hippies.

  • Well, if they’re running a commercial farm and not commuting to the city that obviously changes everything. No one would argue that that is unsustainable.

  • kevd

    In response to Alex.  
    A major problem with development patterns in this country is the abandonment of the village for more suburban or exurban developments and land use patterns in what are primarily rural areas.  Walkability is possible in towns of 300, 3000 as well as 3,000,000.  Walkable villages can be linked with small buses.  Hey, they do it on the Isle of Skye. 
    But, as things stand now in most of this country the real environmentalists (the people helping the environment the most, as opposed to enjoying it the most) are the ones in the large, polluted, transit-oriented cities.

  • TN

    The problem isn’t just the environmentalists who live the semi-rural life. We have a problem in some core cities of people who don the mantle of environmentalism actively and vociferously opposing increasing the density of housing and employment. These NIMBYs enlist the support of the local chapters of the Sierra Club, Audubon etc. They make the goal of increasing the vibrancy and habitability of cities much more difficult and slow it down considerably.

  • Gryphonisle

    Thankyou, it’s about time.  Fifty miles?  I work with people in the City who live in Tracy, Stockton, Sacramento–and even in the Sierra foothills.  Thankfully, they’re not even basic environmentalists, it was the affordability of the house.  Still.  All these folks living up in the Marin hills and on the exurban fringe are living in wild animal habitats, which not only deprives the animals of valuable habitat, when the interaction with those animals goes awry, it’s the animal who suffers.   Deer are nice until they eat your vegetables and flowers.  Raccoons are amusing, until they’ve torn off a piece of your house and have invaded your attic.  And everybody thrills to the sight of a big cat or a bear, until they’ve eaten the dog, or almost attacked you, and then the government is called in to kill the big guy.  Think of those silly people in Danville who are upset with woodpeckers going after their siding…and they’re in an established community!

  • Mark Walker

    So-called environmentalists need to wean themselves off the concept of electric car as panacea.

  • Marcotico

    One of the chapters in Mike Davis’ book “City of Quartz” deals with how the suburban environmentalist agenda in the San Fernando Valley was co-opted by racist exclusionary zoning tactics and resulted in the “slow growth” agenda of the 80’s and 90’s. 

  • icarus12

    I couldn”t agree with this article more.  Here in the Bay Area I treasure Marin’s wildlands and don’t mind one bit having to drive there once a week from the city to a trailhead in order to hike up into them.  I grew up in those hills, encroaching on nature so to speak.  It gave me a sense of the natural world that I would never have gotten in the city.  I still know Tamalpais’ trails from every angle and can hike or sit quietly in the woods much of a day without getting bored. But at the same time, I know our family’s house should never have been built.  And I’m glad that much of the remaining wilds have been preserved from sprawling suburban houses on 1 acre lots on top of ridgelines.

    In order to keep family peace I usually don’t pipe up with my opinion that Marin’s current built areas should get denser.  My environmentalist family members oppose densification, because it will alter their way of life — the easy parking, uncongested roads, lack of crowding or waiting.  And it’s a nice way of life.  The consequences for the environment, however, are hidden and mostly bad.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that an urban lifestyle involves doing specialized work, commuting and buying all the goods and services you need, while a rural lifestyle involves being self-sufficient and taking care of your own needs.

    Most people prefer an urban lifestyle, because it’s simply easier, regardless of where they live. They may enjoy having a garden, but probably don’t want to grow all their food, repair their own clothes and also tend to animals. So they need money, which means trade, which means commuting.

    Now it seems to me that government policy and subsidies over the last several decades have been to encourage people who want to live an urban lifestyle to live out in rural areas, through a number of policies from road subsidies to universal service mandates to cheap gas. And this works well enough, but it’s expensive, both in dollar cost and environmental costs.

    To bring this back to rural communities in NY, the problem you face is that most people don’t want to live in a place where the necessities and luxuries of life are hard to access. You can get around this by subsidizing the hell out of it, which is what we’ve been doing. If you phase that out, however, the people who live in these communities will have to get used to a lower quality of life.

    You could try to redirect the subsidies toward rebuilding the “small town” with shops and doctors’ offices, etc., but I think the current residents will fight tooth and nail to preserve the long-distance-commuting lifestyle, so there probably won’t be much political support for that idea, even if it’s the only sustainable one in the long run. Instead, I think that as it becomes more expensive to maintain, people will move away, and it’ll get worse before it gets better.

  • Bob Davis

    I am reminded of a TV item many years ago about a group that was learning “living off the land” and created a replica Native American tepee village.  But the camera operator or video editor didn’t conceal the small pickup truck in the background. 

  • Andrew

    First, I think what the term environment means needs to be refocused from being solely understood as nature and wilderness (the mainstream conception) to one based on one’s literal spatial environment. The problem with the environmental movement is that it fails to see the city/urban as an environment itself. The issue isn’t that environmentalist should be looking at cities because it is supposedly better for the planet (e.g. “compact living”). Environmentalists should be focusing on cities because there are problems other than whales and trees that need to be addressed. The passage quoted attempts to make the urban a central issue, but still address the urban with the same wilderness rhetoric. The urban is an environmental space in and of itself, not just an extension of nature.
    People in the urban centers are being negatively affected by many issues that relate to the environment. Many lower class people are subjected to injustices everyday: They still live next to the sewage treatment plant, the dump, the power plant; Gentrification and redevelopment are displacing people (sometimes for the sake of the ‘environment’); Homeless people are being banned from even siting on city street with no where else for them to go. All this talk about these great cities with Whole Foods and bike lanes everywhere, yet we forget about the crumbling infrastructure and urban decay of old industrial cities like Detroit and even just in inner cities. 

    Really what the environmental movement needs to do is focus more on social issues, especially in the city where it needs help the most.

  • You know, you CAN get it right somewhere in the middle. 

    Older, denser style suburbs can offer much of the benefits of both styles of living.  Where I live in New Jersey I have enough land where my garden can produce about 20% of my food needs but I can still ride my bike 10 minutes to a NJ Transit station that will take me to NYC in 55 minutes.  Schools, library and a full-service grocery store are all within a 5 to 10 minute walk.  This scenario is repeatable in many New Jersey suburbs.  It’s dumb luck but where I live that I can also quickly and easily access farms and wild areas too, by bike no less!

    The low energy future will be about retro-fitting suburbia and refitting cities.  The sprawl-burbs will be doomed.  Unfortunately, New Jersey has plenty of those too. 

  • fj

    Not clear about the title since there’s lots of stuff about the importance of cities being front-and-center mitigating climate change; Alex Steffen, L. Hunter Lovins & Boyd Cohen (“Climate Capitalism”), PlaNYC, etc.

  • I’ve always thought that cities were the problem — the main problem — with the world — causing and exacerbating global warming. When you think about it, what do cities produce, in actual work/output, besides…nothing at all? Or, nothing of positive value at all? They _do_ produce untold amount of pollution and, thus, suffering.

    The truth of the matter is that many cities, like New York City (which may be a special case), produce incredible amounts of pollution, and actually work (through Wall Street, in this particular case), to destroy the world and its economies (which would actually reduce global warming, probably).

    Outside of the particular and peculiar case that may be NYC — what about other cities? Are they sustainable, or are they a stain on the planet that ravage everything around them for hundreds of miles, and burn almost-inconceivable amounts of fossil fuels?

    I think the answer is clear — if cities cannot be self-sustaining, then they have to be eliminated — they have to go the way of the dodo — they have to be dismantled — they have to be downscaled and rescaled and made sustainable, or they have to be extinguished.

    This is commonsense. Which means the title of this post is nonsense. And/or hyper-suicidal.

    The choice is up to us. We can work to exalt ourselves (city-dwellers), or we can work to lessen the suffering of our children, and ultimately, try to prevent the end of the species.

    There’s at least one person who agrees with at least part of what i’m saying:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/geoffrey_west_the_surprising_math_of_cities_and_corporations.html

    “Cities are the origins of global warming, impact on the environment, health, pollution, disease, finance, economies, energy — they’re all problems that are confronted by having cities. That’s where all these problems come from. And the tsunami of problems that we feel we’re facing in terms of sustainability questions, are actually a reflection of the exponential increase in urbanization across the planet.”

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