Why Stopping Urbanization Is Not Only Impossible, But Misses the Environmental Point

March 10, 2016

Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo © Kevin Arnold

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.

Brooklyn Bridge Park looking towards Manhattan. Photo © Kevin Arnold
Brooklyn Bridge Park looking towards Manhattan. Photo © Kevin Arnold

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.

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  1. Dr. McDonald thank you for this article. It seems to me that one of the largest challenges is the need to integrate sustainable agricultural businesses in urban settings. I certainly appreciate community and urban gardens, but we can concede this will not feed the growing population. So how do we do it? We know that the traditional terms “rural/urban” are more accurately blending in the next 100 years, so how do we have a vibrant farming economy in developed places?

    Perhaps the simple answer is “urban planning,” but I’m curious what specific steps you or others would suggest to accomplish that planning.

  2. Here’s a simple, but very realistic question: How can we get humans to actually care about their habitat, the environment? I mean, even encouraging consciousness of the environment seems to be a challenge…

  3. It is not urban growth that is the greatest threat to the natural world, it is human consumption.

    Urban growth is not a solution to environmental challenges, it is the concentrated expression of human impacts on the non-human world, compressed into a confined space, always expanding at the edges. Human growth does not stop at the urban/wild border. Urban growth does not stop at the edge of town. It is everywhere.

    Human growth is a formula for disaster: Impact=population X consumption. It is not just growth that creates global impacts, it is increasing consumption as a result of unlimited human growth. It doesn’t matter where that growth occurs, consumption increases and is felt worldwide.

    Urban growth may result in decreased rates of population growth, but also results in increased consumption per capita and in total. It is human consumption that creates environmental destruction, habitat loss, species extinction, topsoil loss and ground water loss.

    If human societies are to continue in any form resembling “civilization,” we must reverse human growth patterns, simplify all human lives and drastically reduce human consumption.

  4. The author seems to have missed the fact that much of the coming urbanisation will happen mainly in Asia and Africa, where presently the rurals consume much less than their urban counterparts, unlike in the developed world. In India, for instance, car and A.C ownership is much higher in cities than in villages and small towns.
    Instead of waxing eloquent about patents created and the putative efficiency in urban areas, one should learn from the past, and nowhere better than in China. Starting with a negligible urban population in the 1960s, China has lost millions of acres of farmland, and multiplied per-capita resource consumption by several times since. Today it is 50% urban, and 100% polluted.

    The only way further urbanisation would be good for the environment will be when it happens through self-sufficient urban communities of not more than, say, 1,00,000 people . There is no reason to believe that such an ecological vision will come true, least of all through voluntary action. In all probability, in the years to come, we will see more megalopoles and consequently less forests and farmland in Asia and Africa.

  5. Well said! As overall population increases, urban migration has greater net benefits for the environment over the alternative. However, we have to be careful how we define “urbanization” to make sure it does not include urban sprawl. Urbanization is a good thing as long as that means “building up”, not “out”. In other words, re-development over new development. I know this may not be the case in all cities, but coming from a southeast Michigan (Flint/Detroit) standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to expand outward from cities at the detriment to our environment.

  6. I would like to see or hear a positive solution to this for a grade nine project one that is ethical and well thought through

  7. Thank you for posting this article, even if I am many years late to reading this. This helped alot with my school assignment. The teacher asked ” how can you stop or slow urbanization?” and this article helped a lot.