Let’s stop urbanization: It’s a sentiment I’ve been hearing for years. But is this really what environmentalists should be advocating?
I will never forget the face of the man who approached me after my lecture on urban growth and its relationship to the environment: earnest, distraught, and somewhat angry. “I just wanted to let you know,” he said, “that that was one of the most depressing talks I have ever seen.”
It was not the emotional response I wanted or expected from my audience. As we talked I began to understand his worry, for it is a concern I have heard multiple times when talking about the massive urban growth happening currently on a planet. If urban population growth, which is slated to be almost 3 billion by 2050, places such a strain on the environment, why can’t we just stop urban population growth?
It’s a deceptively simple idea, but one that I believe is wrong — or at least not helpful — for a few reasons. First, it is not clear that anyone can stop it. Every country, without exception, has urbanized as it has economically developed: a growing fraction of the population lives in cities as economies diversify from agriculture into other industries. Governments that have tried to stop urbanization have largely failed. Both China and South Africa, for instance, tried to limit rural-to-urban migration (responsible for about half of total urban population growth) by limiting the permits issued that allowed migration. They only succeeded in creating a large pool of urban residents without permits who were open to economic and political exploitation.
Second, I question whether humanity should want to limit urbanization. The ability to choose whether to live in a city or a rural area is a human right, part of the pursuit of happiness. There are also many benefits, to the individual and society, of an urban life. Cities and the increased interaction they allow enhance innovation (patent generation rates increase, for instance) and economic productivity.
The denser settlements in cities also make it cheaper per-capita to provide services like energy, education, and health care to those in cities. In some ways, cities are even good for the environment; for instance, city dwellers in the U.S. use less energy per-capita than rural dwellers, primarily because they drive less and live in small homes that are cheaper to heat and cool. All these myriad environmental benefits are what are driving people to cities, and it is not clear we should try to stop them.
Indeed, preventing urban growth might increase total population growth. Urbanization is part of the “demographic transition”, the systematic and predictable decline in birth rates that occur as societies economically develop. While a large family on a farm may be economically advantageous, a large family in the city can be ruinous. So societies that have tried to limit to rural to urban migration likely have maintained higher population birth rates overall, since birth rates in rural areas are higher.
This isn’t to deny that urban growth poses challenges to the environment, for it clearly does. Forecasts predict an area the size of the state of Texas will be developed over the next 30 years. This growth, due to increases in both population and consumption, could have significant environmental consequences. The environmental community has to meet the challenge of massive urbanization by proposing a set of pragmatic solutions. We can begin by encouraging voluntary lifestyle choices that moderate urban growth, such as smaller family size or living in smaller homes near the city center. We can encourage smart urban planning, so that the growth that does occur avoids sensitive biodiversity areas. This smart urban planning can provide a host of other benefits, such as walkable and bikeable communities, which reduce transportation energy use and hence greenhouse gas emissions. We can try to make our cities more livable and green, filled with parks and street trees that are improving the lives of urbanites in multiple ways. That is what a sophisticated, realistic response to urban growth’s environmental challenge looks like.