Editor's Note: The following is adapted from a speech delivered last week to the American Political Science Association, which held its annual meeting in Seattle.
Urbanization is an unstoppable world megatrend. Over the past 60 years, the urbanized areas of the planet have gone from 29 percent in 1950, to half of the world’s population today, and by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban regions.
Scientists describe the large communities of plants and animals that occupy distinct climatic regions on earth as “biomes.” We should think of cities — and by my definition I mean whole networked urban regions — as the newest, rapidly expanding biomes of the earth.
Cities are already responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Accordingly, climate change cannot be addressed without their transformation through strategic alliances. I'd like to suggest some ways to get on with this project.
A central, compelling question raised by political scientists, economists, planners, and other researchers is that, if cities are the fastest growing systems on earth — and causing resource depletion, species die-off, and declining natural ecosystems of unprecedented scale — how can we manage the way that urbanization is drastically restructuring the ecology of our planet?
Let's start with the United States, already one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. By 2050 America is expected to grow by 120 million more people, and it is estimated that an 90 percent of Americans will live in cities and metro areas. Most will be located in a handful of vast mega-metro urban regions that cross state and even national boundaries. The growth of these metro regions, some 360 in all, is largely unbounded, not contained in any one political jurisdiction, and unmanaged.
Urbanist and philosopher Lewis Mumford in his prescient 1956 paper, “The Natural History of Urbanization,” wrote that "the blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing."
One reason for these "blind forces" is the pattern of local politics in the United States over the past half century, which has served to amplify the urban–suburban divide rather bridge it. This has impeded the healthy and efficient growth of urban metros.
Yet most urbanists today see cities (meaning metropolitan regions) increasingly as hubs for innovation, places to experience urban vitality, and an answer to our global economic woes. Cities have an inherent urban advantage and the capacity for progressive and transformative change.
As Bruce Katz with Brookings Institution says, our U.S. metro regional economies are what will make the U.S. competitive again with other developing nations if we can garner our interdependencies, link up, and foster economic synergies among metro regions. In fact 82 percent of U.S. gross domestic product is produced in its metro regions.
According to economist Jeb Brugmann, author of Welcome to the Urban Revolution, urban scholars who have analyzed market flows have "discovered that global networks were patterned according to networks of cities." They have concluded that "the growing commerce between cities has created hierarchies between cities that define the new economic order. Cities and their networked systems — not countries or individual corporations — are the main command and control centers of a new world City system."
Brugmann continues: “The primary ecological challenge of the next decades… will be our ability to develop ecological urbanisms, …and [determining] whether the City evolves into a truly functional new ecosystem — a citysystem with stable if not synergistic relationships with natural systems.”
Harvard Economics professor Ed Glaeser, in his recent acclaimed book, Triumph of the City , espouses a different view of environmental policy through city-building. "If you love nature, stay out of it," he declares. Build up, and up and up. Greater density is the goal, and the way to save the planet, he says.
But this is wrong-headed and simplistic. How will towers and more concrete save the planet, when they simultaneously increase human consumption, energy, and enlarging the ecological footprint of cities well beyond their borders? Furthermore, humans cannot separate themselves from nature, survive, and remain healthy. Nor do they want to.
The global challenge of urbanization in the 21st century will not be solved by concentrating people and separating them from nature. Theat creates what Brugmann calls "a parasitic system that disrputs the metabolism of Earth's great green, blue, tan, and white biomes, triggering chaotic ecological collapse."
Urban forms and zones are neither uniform nor fixed. They can be designed to mimic nature’s efficiencies and productivities. So can buildings that attempt to use nature’s free services in a clean, regenerative way. Whole cities can do the same. And, as we’ve just seen again with the hurricane Irene in the Northeast, another big worry is disaster readiness and resilience. In addition to some of these demographic changes, cities are going to have to get used to responding to more frequent disasters whether from earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, bush fires and other severe weather catastrophes related to climate change.
Yet by and large, cities in the U.S. are often handcuffed by state governments through restrictions at every level on land use, regulation, and revenue raising. Outside of major cities, the metro regions — where most people live in North America — fare even worse when it comes to reach of regulatory authority and revenue collection. Very few full service metro or regional governments with any land use control even exist in the U.S. (the exceptions are Portland, Miami Dade County, San Francisco, and Minneapolis).
For the Western Washington region, home to hundreds of local governments, the jurisdictional boundaries have very little to do with how we live and even where we work, and shop. This is true for most other metro regions in the country. Just think about how often you cross the boundaries of the city or town where you live to go to work, to recreate, or to shop. Three or four times a week, or three or four times a day?
Though we don’t identify as such, most Americans are regional citizens living in highly networked yet seemingly invisible regional citysystems. The Seattle metro region, for example, is a large and multi-faceted area encompassing 5,894 square miles. That is almost the size of New York’s metro area of 6,720 miles but with 15.5 million fewer people. Seattle metro includes 31 cities and towns and dozens of employment centers.
Amando Carbonell, Senior Planning Fellow at Harvard’s Lincoln Land Institute, says:
We live in regions — territories defined primarily by function and only rarely by jurisdiction. The places where we work, live, shop, recreate, and socialize constitute a territory that seldom corresponds to a single town or city. Regional planning is concerned less with the exercise of jurisdiction and more with the search for new forms of habitation based on a clear commitment to advancing sustainability.
Even if we do live and work in the same town, the ecological fall out of our day-to-day living patterns will be felt upstream and downstream throughout the region, not to mention the ecological footprint.
And now my central point: a regional approach is necessary for managing land use, water, utilities, population growth, and transportation, and ultimately for addressing climate change.
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