Monday, August 26, 2013

Why We Need Cities

A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece that was intended to be somewhat hopeful, although it turned out mostly depressing, about our future on this planet. It was in the midst of the enormous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and while that disaster continues to exact a horrific toll, it has been since been pushed to the background as there have been dozens of other equally grim reminders that as long as we humans walk the earth, nature will never be what it once was.

I made a commitment in that post to try to do at least one thing extra every day to reduce my own environmental footprint, and while I can't say that I've been as methodical about it as I'd hoped, I have, I think, contributed at least a little less to the disaster over the past two years than I did during the two preceding. Pathetic perhaps, but progress nonetheless. I now live in a "green" building, I've virtually stopped driving my car, and I've done my best to eat food produced close to my home. My next step is to attempt to cut sugar and beef from my diet. I expect to enjoy improved health, of course, but mainly I'm doing it because the production of both are, from what I've read, significant contributors to pollution. Please don't think I'm preaching, because I remain a huge "sinner" in this: after all, I just flew on 14 jets in 20 days during my recent trip Down Under.

I'm an optimistic person by nature, a trait that is strengthened by the fact that I work with young children, and to do so without hope, I think, would be a sort of crime. In that old post, entitled "Unnatural Places," I wrote about a project here in Seattle to restore a small piece of the wetlands that once characterized the shores of Lake Washington. I held it up as an example of the kind of "unnatural"  balance we humans must find with nature if we are to survive.

Recently, our 3-5's class took a field trip to those "wetlands," traveling there on a Metro bus that runs on biofuel. We were met by a team of docents, lead by a naturalist. We divided up into groups to study plants and animals that have "moved in." Of course we didn't see all the animals, but rather the evidence of their existence, such as chewed leaves, nests, and scat, including that of a coyote. Animals tend to make themselves scarce when humans are around.

To see how far this wetlands restoration project has come, just compare the photos in this post to the ones from my post of two year ago.

Clearly, this, in a very small way, is working the way we humans have planned, providing an unnatural natural place for us city slickers to learn without exposing what few natural natural places we have left to our trampling feet and polluting automobiles. I understand why it's hard for some folks to get excited about this sort of thing, why they see it as a poor substitute for actual nature, why they view the learning that comes from it as impoverished and second-rate. That said, it is the responsible thing to do. It is, for the foreseeable future, the relationship we need to forge with nature.

For too long, our solution was to flee cities, to move farther and farther in to suburbia, then ex-urbia, to have country homes and beach houses, pushing humanity increasingly into the habitat of bears and wolves and cougars, further destroying the very thing we were seeking to embrace. This is why I am today a committed city dweller. I see now that this is actually the right and proper way for humans to live, stacked up together, rubbing shoulders, embracing social, ethnic and economic differences, linking our fates together to build interconnected lives.

I understand those of you who crave natural nature, but frankly, you're killing it. We need you back here with us, working together with us. The last decade has seen a trend of people moving from Seattle's suburbs and into the city itself. I remember when the evening commute saw most traffic leaving the city, but the tide is turning. And you know what? I'm becoming increasingly convinced that this, living in cities, big cities, really is the only sustainable future for humanity, and not just for environmental reasons, and the first thing that needs to go are the suburbs.

I grew up in a series of suburbs, having come to city life only as an adult. I used to buy into the whole "concrete jungle" thing, viewing cities as impoverished, crime-ridden places. I still know many people who feel fearful in the city. They'll usually tell you it's crime they worry about the most, but in most places around the US it's not the cities with the highest crime rates. In Washington State, for instance, as our most populous city, Seattle's crime rate puts us in the middle of the pack, pretty average when it comes to crime, whereas bedroom communities with names like Gig Harbor and Wapato and Moses Lake and Burlington are the most likely places to be victimized.

Honestly, I feel safer in the city than I do in the suburbs. I like having all those people around me. I can't even recall which city it was, it might have been Melbourne, a city of some 4.5 million, when Niki and I saw a young woman stumble and fall in a cross walk. Before we could even take a step in her direction, four other strangers were already there to help her up, dust her off, and inquire about her well-being. It was the kind of thing that only happens in a big city, strangers taking care of strangers.

I find cites, even with their noise and grit, to be life affirming. Yes, a city puts poverty, crime, and depravities of all sorts in your face, but all of our human virtues are here too: cities also show us beauty and compassion and tolerance. Suburbs, of course, house all these things as well, because there are people there, but they're too often hidden behind their fences, with the primary view into the lives of others being car windows and the fun house mirror of television, views at a distance that too easily breed contempt and envy and, most significantly, fear. The root of most of the world's problems is fear, and most fear is irrational.

I know I'm not going to change anyone's mind by writing this, but when I look at humanity's future, if we are to have a future, it is all about cities with increasingly dense populations, while allowing the suburbs to revert over time to the natural places they once were, turning them back over to the bears, wolves, and cougars. I see abandoned shopping centers overrun with vines, 5 acre parking lots growing meadows through their cracks, and former mini-mansions housing mini-ecosystems.

This is the future of the planet anyway, even in our most populous cities, even if we just continue to spread out until we've made this place uninhabitable for human beings, because nature will prevail. I'd prefer to think we'll overcome our fears and learn to survive, but to do that we'll need you, or at least your kids, to move back into our cities.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this issue, and the sustainability of human societies is something about which I often ruminate, too. However, my perspective is different because I have always lived in the Midwest (NE & IA). Here the concept of city vs. suburb vs. rural is a bit different, I think. And here you can't help but be aware that the primary way in which humans are impinging on nature is not by the layout of their dwellings, but by our population size and level of consumption. I think the statistic I was given as an undergrad is that a little over 50% of the world's surface has been converted to use for agriculture. Converging in cities here in Iowa would not change the landscape in any noticeable way, if our lifestyles otherwise remain the same.

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