Toward Ecologically Stable Urban Environments

Toward Ecologically Stable Urban Environments

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As the global population increases and becomes more urbanized the urban pressures of pollution, sprawl and decay degrade the environment and the quality of life for city dwellers.


In his book, "The History of the City," Leonardo Benevolo comes to the conclusion that the world’s best urban model has been that of the ancient Greek city, or polis. He speaks of the polis as being, "dynamic but stable, in balance with nature, and growing manageably even after reaching a large size." While Benevolo may have been looking at these ancient Greek cities with slightly rose colored glasses, none-the-less the polis does set out an ideal for us to strive for in the planning and management of today’s cities. In comparison to the polis the majority of urban environments in the world fall pitifully short. The world is becoming more urban at a rate that has never been seen in history. The pressures this has put on cities increasing stress not only on the city but its surrounding hinterland as well. The problems of the city range from the pollution of the air and water ways to crime and tensions between racial groups within the urban setting. While all of these issues are fundamentally related it is not possible to deal with them all here. I will keep an interdisciplarian view point but will focus this paper on the areas of increasing the environmental sustainability of the city. It must be realized that there are many socio-economic issues that can not be ignored and that the problems of urban settings are very complex.

Urban Sustainability:

What are the environmental problems then that face the world’s cities today? As will be shown they are many and diverse. The sprawling city of Bangkok incorporates 3,200 hectares of farmland into its limits every year (Lowe, 1991). This increases the city’s footprint and population while at the same time destroying food producing area’s for the city. Bangkok in this way is hit with a double edged sword. Las Vegas and other western and west coast cities in the US struggle with dwindling water reserves. They have been forced into considering such solutions as piping in water or diverting rivers or some have even suggested pulling ice bergs down from the polar cap. In Adelaide, a city of 1 million in South Australia, the average rain fall in a year is 451mm while the average water consumption per house hold is 265 dL for a year (Australia Department of Statistics).

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Of this about 56% is used outside the house for water lawns and the like. In all of these cities rain fall is low and yet residence still continue to waste or at best carelessly use this precious resource. Urban sprawl, hinterland degradation, water shred abuse, air pollution and a growing disconnection to the land are major themes that arise again and again around the globe in the ecosystems of cities.

Much of the mounting pressure on cities can be attributed to the huge rise in urban populations over the last century. At the beginning of this century only one out of every ten people lived in cities (Lowe, 1991). The middle of the road predictions now are that by the end of this century half the world’s population will live in cities (Fredstat). Already almost three quarters of American’s live in cities and in countries like Australia the numbers are over 85% (Platt, 1994). Two-thirds world countries are now experiencing the doubling of their cities population’s in 10 to 15 years (Lowe, 1994). Much of this growth comes from rural to urban migration based on economics (Platt, 1994). In many African countries, often the men are forced to leave the countryside in search of work in the cities. As these kinds of pressures compound, the difficulties facing the governments of these countries, as they struggle to provide clean water, sewage, transport and housing increase. Much harder still is the task of trying to plan and control their developing industrialization that has great potential to do incredible environmental damage.

Cities in developing countries are not the only ones to have felt the pressures of increasing populations. In the US and other western nations we are seeing similar urban growth. Here again we see rural to urban migration but more destructive may be the unsuppressible advance to suburbia. The trend we especially see in many American cities is the slow decline and death of the inner city coupled with a mostly middle class that is fleeing the city for the suburbs (Platt, 1994). Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 promoted and put into place "green belts" of farmland and woods around cities to limit their sprawl (Lowe, 1991). This showed a clear insight into this problem. However, urban sprawl has hit a new gear with its ally the automobile. This has made it possible for suburbanites to live further and further out of the cities core and still commute for work by virtue of this form of independent transportation.

Some efforts have been made to contain urban expansion but some have done more harm then good. In North America and some other countries like Australia low-density zoning has been introduced to try to curb urban sprawl (Lowe, 1991). Unfortunately these measures have had the opposite effect. By having low-density zoning developers have had to increase the amount of land parceled with each home. This has then made new suburbs sprawl more than ever. It is clear then that in acting we must consider closely the effect of our actions. We must be careful that we do not worsen the situation we wish to improve. Louck says that there is a ,"substantial scientific underpinnings required to develop the regenerative capacity in cities. When we intervene to try to restore sustainability, we need to be sure the outcome will be an improvement, not a higher risk of impoverishment" (Loucks, 1994).

Polis, the Model City:

How then should we proceed? What options do we have before us? In looking at models of what can be and is being done I will first look at sustainability in the urban context.

One of the first things that can be rightly asked about sustainable city is if it even exists? Can a city coexist with its surrounding environment or even be viewed as an ecosystem in its own right? In 1955 a gathering was held at Princeton University dealing with urban human's interaction with their biosphere. It was called the "Man’s Roles" symposium. At this symposium Lewis Mumford caught the stream of thought in saying that America was manifesting, "a tendency to loosen the bonds that connect (the city’s) inhabitants with nature, and to transform, eliminate, or replace its earth-bound aspects, covering the natural site with an artificial environment that enhances the dominance of man and encourages an illusion of complete independence from nature." The predominant view seems to have been that humans, in particular city dwellers, were inherently destructive to the environment (Platt, 1994).

While humans have been incredibly destructive of the environment many people today believe that we can and must work toward ecological sustainability in urban settings. In order for us to be able to work toward sustainability we must change our view of the urban environment. We must begin to see the city as a potential, thriving ecosystem in itself. Many people when asked to identify nature in cities would probably point to the park areas. While parks are a very important park of the urban ecosystem they are by no means the total extent of it. Vacant lots, railroad right-of-ways, cemeteries and other open spaces provide areas for nature flora and fauna to flourish (Hough, 1994). Rivers, streams and lakes are present in many cities. Birds have shown themselves highly adaptable to utilizing city space. Even larger birds of prey, such as the eastern screech owl, have shown themselves to be well suited to urban areas (Gehlbach, 1972).

Despite this wealth of nature around us in the urban setting many city inhabitants never learn or are taught about their unique environment. We seem to think that nature = non-urban. Michael Hough outlines an incident that happened during a workshop with urban school teachers (Hough, 1994). Hough was leading a discussion focused on making trips to ravines and other open areas where children could see nature in the city. One teacher became fed-up with the discussion and interjected a question about what was to be done if no "nature areas" were close to the school. Hough’s answer illustrates well how holes in our learning and failure to think more broadly inhibit a constructive view of urban ecosystems. His reply was, "stand them in the middle of the asphalt school yard and ask them why they are alive. That would be a good beginning." Biology is about us everywhere and we are biological organisms. Just because we are human does not exclude us from looking at ourselves in similar ways as we look at other environments which do not contain humans as a major component.

How then can we take concrete steps toward environmental sustainability in cities? The first thing we need is a view shift as I have already outlined. "The picture that emerges is thus one of discovery, of an urban society beginning to look at it’s surroundings with fresh eyes, seeing new possibilities in old things. A radical change in perception is involved" (Nicholson-Lord, 1987). Part of this change is the step of looking at our cities as ecosystems. From here urban sustainability can be nicely divided into two areas,

- working toward greening the city itself,

- lowering the impact of the city on its surroundings.

The first can deal with how we use the land. Are we allowing this ecosystem to, "insure an orderly cycle of material and energy transformations and regulate the moisture economy" (Platt, 1994)? Do we, "cushion the earth’s surface against violent physiographic change" (Platt, 1994)? The second is to realize that the effects of a city extend far beyond its boarders. Most of the food is imported, the entire water shred is effected by the city’s water use and abuse and polluted air is not just contained within the city where it was produced. A broad range of issues must be addressed in looking at these objectives. Specific actions that we take to improve the way our cities work fit within these two areas. There are many things that can be done and I will outline several.

Urban gardening is one specific approach that improves the situation in several different ways. Agriculture in cities is not something that is foreign in this century. During World War Two over 10% of the United Kingdom’s food production came from cities like London (Hough, 1994). There were piggeries in Hyde Park, which is a large park in London, and agricultural shows in the basement of Selfridge’s department store. The pressures of war forced this as a necessity for Britain but it shows what can be done. Because of the many industrial activities of cities they often have concentrations of nutrient energy, both mineral and organic. Land is often at a premium in the inner-city though this is not always the case. Even when this is the case tires gardens, window boxes and rooftops can increase growing areas. Gardens can lower the volume of food that needs to be produced outside of the city there by lessening the city’s foot print. Another benefit is the increased direct interaction of city dwellers with the nature world. By being involved with the growth process the greater connection to the earth can be fostered. Additionally community gardens especially in economically depressed areas can help to boast individuals self-view by allowing them to help themselves as well as building a sense of community. Unfortunately resources for gardens are allocated to more affluent suburban areas ahead of the inner-city areas (Hough, 1994).

Park use is another area were cities could, over the shorter term, make positive changes or increase protection. Parks are often serve many purposes, recreation, wild life habitat, head water protection and so forth (Gill, 1973). The maintenance of biodiversity in a city depends a lot on the diversity of park areas. This must be taken into account when deciding how park area will be used. Maintaining swamps, wooded areas and scrub areas are all essential.

There are other issues that need to be dealt with which fall into the area of city planning. Among these are transportation, urban density, waste disposal and water use. These issues are mostly beyond the control of the average citizen and are mostly in the realm of the urban planner or public servant. However these people, in theory, react to the wishes of the general public. We therefore can apply pressure to these people in order to affect change. Waste disposal, transportation problems and the like are complex issues and require innovative answers. Here science can have a very profound impact. It is necessary for sufficient data to here been collected on an area and adequate thought put into ideas before they are implemented. Otherwise we may worsen the situation. Technology needs to also be applied to these issues. Technology has been perceived a savior in the past and holds must promise for the future. We must be very cautious though because to rely on miracles to cures our problems will inevitably lead us into trouble.

The general members of the community can and must be involved in this greening process. As I stated before the pressure for change must come primarily from the general public. The general public must also be willing to change their habits accommodate the change. Take water use for instance. For those who live in drier climates restricted water use will necessitate changes in consumption and corresponding changes in cultural views. Bright green lawns must give way to brown lawns or lawns planted with native grasses or other plants.

Two-Thirds World Issues:

In the two-thirds world the main obstacle seems to be getting infrastructure into place to be able to deal with the huge population increase. While many of the other topics also effect two-thirds world countries' population increase seem to out strip them all. The poor conditions that are experienced in these cities mirrors, to a certain extent, conditions in many US cities around and before the turn of the century. Working class neighborhoods of developing Boston, New York or even London resembles the shanty towns of Mexico City, Manila or Cairo. In the western countries a rapidly expanding economy that came with the industrial revolution managed to pull up the living standards of many city dwellers. However, this period of growth came at high environmental cost. Many two-thirds world countries are going through rapid economic growth at similar environment costs. When this growth seems to be the only hope for the future governments is likely to overlook environmental concerns in the face of what they see as larger more pressing issues. Pressures of food and housing shortages, inadequate roads and sewage systems. It is a hard situation that is faced here. If we wish to avoid cities becoming increasingly more destructive of their environments then we must be willing to offer assistance to two-thirds world countries both in knowledge and monetary ways. This will not suffice though to solve the problem. In these cities we will solve nothing if we do not address the underlying issues of poverty and a global economic system in which those in the west control 80% of the resources. These are huge issues to address but they are integral to an ever expanding majority of the world’s population.


The challenge presented to us is a difficult one. World population growth and increasing urbanization heighten the destructive capacity of cities to their own environments and the surrounding hinterland. This challenge must first be met with the realization that cities are ecosystem in their own right. We must then struggle to find sustainability in our cities, in the city itself and lessen its effect on the surrounding environment. To achieve this much is needed. We need to renew our connection to the earth. There must be scientific underpinning of any action, and we must use the technology available to us to come up with new, less destructive ways of doing things. Community support and will are essential as is a monetary commitment from the government. We must have well planned infrastructure, be it transport or waste disposal or urban sprawl. City planners and governments will need to work together.

These are indeed hard topics. They come down to the everyday ways our cities operate and they involve all urban people. They deal with the quality of life we have and what we will pass on to our children. The words of a Nigerian tribesman bring the reality into focus, "the land belongs to all people, many of whom are dead, a few living, and countless left unborn" (Platt, 1994). The land in the end owns us and we are dependent on it. We can not ignore the fact that we are part of nature even in a setting that we think of as exclusively human. We must take up the challenge to bring our cities into closer resemblance of the polis, the environmental city.


Bradley, G. Urban Forest Landscapes: Integrating Multidisciplinary Perspectives, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995.

Dunkerley, H. Urban Land Policy: Issues and Opportunities, Oxford University. Press, New York, 1983.

Gill, D.; Bonnett, P. Nature in the Urban Landscape, York Press, Baltimore, 1973.

Lowe, M. Shaping Cities: The Environment and Human Dimensions, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, 1991.

Nicholson-Lord, D. The Greening of the Cities, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1987.

Platt, R.; Rowntree, R., Muick P.; Hough M. The Ecological City: Preserving and
Restoring Urban Biodiversity, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1994.

Schwab, W. Urban Sociology: A Human Ecological Perspective, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, 1982.

Fedstat. Statistical Data. Available at:

Australia Department of Statistics. Australian Statistics. Available at:
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