Karen Seto on Cities and Conservation

September 25, 2014

Karen Seto. Photo © Nick Allen.

What nature looks like in 2050 will be driven in large part by cities, where more than one-half of all people now live. So what can conservation do in the face of accelerating urbanization? Are there ways to build cities that both provide residents attractive amenities and also make these cities more sustainable?

Few observers are better positioned to answer these questions than Karen Seto, a leader in the area of urbanization and global environmental change and a professor of geography and urbanization and Associate Dean of Research at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

A geographer by training, Karen Seto integrates remote sensing methods, field interviews and computer modeling to study land change and urbanization. Seto is co-chair of the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project (UGEC) of Future Earth and was a coordinating lead author for Working Group III of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. She specializes in contemporary urbanization in China and India and has more than fifteen years of research experience in Asia.

Today’s Most Pressing Conservation Priority

Urban expansion is both a threat and an opportunity at the same time. I think one of the main priorities — for me, the top one — is to preserve the wild landscapes that we already have.

The most recent UN report suggests that we are going to be in a world of about 6 billion urban dwellers by 2050. When we think about the gradient of landscapes, we have got — on the one extreme, these literally wild places, which are very small in terms of area.  And then we’ve got a large percentage of the Earth’s surface which is human dominated or human altered.

We know from lots of research that as we continue to modify the human landscapes — often that results in encroaching into wild landscapes. How do we make sure that these urban areas that are expanding don’t encroach into the wild areas or maybe even limit their expansion into the human‑dominated landscapes?

And then, cities are also going to require raw materials — be it steel, concrete, timber, water — that often do come from these wild landscapes. So there will be a pretty strong link between how cities evolve and get built over the next 40 years and, really, the fate of the planet.

To Find the Opportunity, Look to the Goal, Not the Means

A lot of the current work is thinking about sustainable urban development on a very piecemeal basis. So there’s a lot of effort going towards, for example, building energy‑efficient, zero‑carbon buildings. And there’s a lot of effort towards improving the efficiency of our transportation system, especially the efficiency of cars, and creating hybrid vehicles or zero‑carbon vehicles.

What do we want out of urban life, and what types of design and land use will give us those types of urban amenities?

Karen Seto

But there hasn’t been as much effort looking at a more holistic, systemic perspective. What do we want out of our cities? What do we want out of urban life, and what types of design and land use will give us those types of urban amenities?

So, for example, we can all drive hybrid vehicles; we can all work and live in LEED‑certified platinum buildings, but if we all live 50 miles from where we work and it requires getting in the car just to go get a carton of milk, that’s not going to be very sustainable.

What is it that people want out of their communities? Oftentimes, it boils down to something as simple as accessibility. People don’t necessarily want a means of transportation, a better car to get them there.

What they want is the amenity itself, which is the access. We can get access by building more efficient cars, but we could also get access by rezoning, redesigning cities, infilling, thinking about a mixture of land uses — so that people are actually physically close to the things that they want and want access to.

If we live in places that are more accessible, we actually end up using a lot fewer resources, not just energy resources, but also water, copper, steel, lots of other materials, and so that ends up having a much more positive impact on the need to extract resources and the need to encroach on wild lands.

Achieving Accessibility in Cities

Ironically, when you look at travel lists of top cities that people visit, you can see that people have a very romantic view of what city life is like.  It is not a surprise that Paris — or places like Siena or Florence — continue to be top visited cities.

There are a lot of reasons people go to Paris besides the architecture, but the city layout and the land use is really critical for the feel and the essence, the cultural fabric of that city.

Nowadays, when communities are being expanded, when there’s an influx of population, one of the biggest budgets for a lot of cities is actually on road construction. We have got 100 years of recent history where we are building places based on the car, based on rapid mobility, as opposed to accessibility.

Having said that, there are places that are doing it more right than wrong. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of the most accessible, human‑friendly, sustainable places aren’t designed from top down. In fact, they are very much bottom‑up places.

Taipei is a good example of a city that’s undergone a lot of change over the last 30 years and still has retained a mixture of being very walkable. The city is pretty big in terms of physical size, but it is designed around a set of neighborhoods.

It is kind of like Manhattan. The island of Manhattan is actually pretty large, but no one lives their life, you know, across Manhattan.

Getting to the City of the Future

There isn’t a one‑stop‑shopping place for the city manager to go.  Most of what’s out there is focused on individual sectors: transport studies, building efficiency, climate mitigation and adaptation. But in terms of thinking about these holistic designs, there’s not as much happening.

The New Urbanist movement is getting back to more traditional neighborhood design, and they have 10 principles of urbanism. But if you actually look at how you get from here to there, a lot of it ends up being about financing.

Public transportation has to work in tandem with increased density of housing and also with jobs, which means bringing in the private sector and developers, not to mention employers. So there needs to be a much more…I wouldn’t say it has to be in concert, but there needs to be at least some kind of interaction among the different agencies within the city.

Once you have the basic infrastructure and road networks and the zoning set in place, it is very difficult to make large communities of single family homes much more dense. You are not going to tear those down and suddenly build condos with street‑level commerce. So that remains a challenge.

Additionally, we need housing to be closely located to jobs, so that allows people to choose among multiple transit options to get to work.

Innovation Needs Diversity

When I think about what makes cities interesting, it is that you’ve got a lot of different people, different socioeconomic groups, different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles all together.  It is critical for innovation, for creativity, thinking about solutions. People with very different perspectives on what nature is are having these dialogues and at least interactions.

But what we’re seeing with a lot of cities is that the opposite is happening.  Because of communities getting priced out, regions getting just too expensive, we are actually seeing a decline in diversity across many of our cities — because basically it’s just too expensive for all different groups to be living there. That, to me, is a concern.

I am a big believer that the issue of diversity is central to really sustainability, and it is not just a matter of getting the right quota of women or ethnic groups or whatever it is, but it is really that if we don’t engage people with very different perspectives, we come up with solutions that often will create leakages in other systems — negative impacts on other places or for other communities.

Recent Reading

I just read a series of papers about the sharing economy that has made me really think about where society is going and how the sharing economy and urbanization are going to have to work hand‑in‑hand in terms of moving toward sustainability.

The sharing economy may create much more innovative workspaces because small companies especially may not have to rent out an entire commercial space.

Karen Seto

I don’t think the sharing economy would work in places that weren’t urban, that didn’t have a certain density of people and of activities.

Airbnb may work in places that aren’t really urban, but if you’re talking about sharing cars or sharing bicycles, you need to have a certain density of people and activities. The sharing economy may create much more innovative workspaces because small companies especially may not have to rent out an entire commercial space.

People argue that the sharing economy is made possible because of social media, but I think that social media is the lubricant in the sharing economy. It allows it to work, but I think the underlying premise is a concentration of people and activities and social networking. At its core, those are the characteristics of a well‑functioning city.

Beyond 9 Billion

There are a number of opportunities that are posed by urbanization and urban living. When we think about a world of 9‑ or 10 billion people at the end of this century, I think the urbanization of population is actually going to be a critical component to preserving these landscapes.

Just envision 8‑, 9‑, 10 billion people in low‑density development, right? That would just take up a lot of the Earth’s landscape. Not to mention the resources required just to pave all those cul‑de‑sacs.

But I think the real challenge is how do we get from where we are now to building, designing, imagining these urban landscapes, these urban communities that are going to be healthier for our own lives in terms of mobility, walkability, and also healthier in terms of natural ecosystems.

Want to find out what Walt Reid, Cristina Eisenberg, Emma Marris and other conservation science leaders are thinking? Read more of our Green Giants interviews.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.