Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cities Are Our Future

An acquaintance recently informed me that she was moving to a beautiful place "just south of Portland," Oregon. She had been living in a city and was enthused about the opportunity to live "among trees and wild critters." When I asked if it was a suburb, she answered, "No, just outside of the whole suburb hell, but close enough to drive into the city when I need a little culture."

This is a "before and after" picture five years later. Our unnatural natural wetlands in the city look more natural now. 

I didn't say anything because her plans were already finalized, her old home sold and her new one purchased, but I sure wanted to.

Some five 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 since been pushed into the background as there have by now been hundreds of other equally grim reminders that as long as we humans walk the earth, nature will never be what it once was.

In many places, the rectangular marsh ponds are now mostly overgrown, offering only peek-a-boo views of water between the native grasses, plants, and the trunks of saplings.

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.

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.

This is another before and after from almost the same vantage point.

I've been back to check on this "unnatural place" many times over the past five years to view the artwork, for picnics, to walk the dogs, or on field trips with the kids. When we arrive at the wetlands, we are met by a team of docents lead by a naturalist. We divide up into groups to examine the plants and animals that have "moved in." Of course, we don't see many of these animals, but rather the evidence of their existence such as chewed leaves, nests, and scat, including, once, that of a coyote. Animals tend to make themselves scarce when humans are around. This past week I've been there twice. The pictures you see in this post are how these manmade, man-managed wetlands look today alongside photos from that post five years 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, to be followed by roads, sewer lines, grocery stores, shopping malls, and gas stations, 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. When you move "south of Portland," you push nature farther and farther away, and that space inevitably gets filled up with cars, roads, sewer lines, grocery stores, shopping malls, and gas stations.

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. There is a great deal of construction going on in our city right now: I recently counted 15 construction cranes from a single vantage point at South Lake Union Park. I can see a 41 story apartment building being constructed from my living room window. Indeed, there are thousands of new units being built within a few blocks of where I live and I'm excited for my new neighbors to move in.

I've become 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 Buchan 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 because we live so close together.

This area was originally home to a 15-acre lake. When the Lake Washington Ship Canal was opened 100 years ago, the water level dropped 9 feet, leaving "Mud Lake" dehydrated. It was then paved over to be used as a Naval Airstrip. These wetlands are not a recreation of Mud Lake, but rather something new, a hybrid creation of nature and humans. I live and work along the shores of Lake Union, another of these hybrid places.

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, and I will anger my friends who feel that Seattle is growing too fast, but when I look at humanity's future, if we are to have a future, it is all about thoughtful 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 imagine 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:

Bob Goldberg said...

My favorite song, Nothing But Flowers, speaks to this.