The Environmental Advantages of Cities

The Environmental Advantages of Cities: Countering Commonsense Antiurbanism

William B. Meyer
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Environmental Advantages of Cities
    Book Description:

    Conventional wisdom about the environmental impact of cities holds that urbanization and environmental quality are necessarily at odds. Cities are seen to be sites of ecological disruption, consuming a disproportionate share of natural resources, producing high levels of pollution, and concentrating harmful emissions precisely where the population is most concentrated. Cities appear to be particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, to be inherently at risk from outbreaks of infectious diseases, and even to offer dysfunctional and unnatural settings for human life. In this book, William Meyer tests these widely held beliefs against the evidence. Borrowing some useful terminology from the public health literature, Meyer weighs instances of "urban penalty" against those of "urban advantage." He finds that many supposed urban environmental penalties are illusory, based on commonsense preconceptions and not on solid evidence. In fact, greater degrees of "urbanness" often offer advantages rather than penalties. The characteristic compactness of cities, for example, lessens the pressure on ecological systems and enables resource consumption to be more efficient. On the whole, Meyer reports, cities offer greater safety from environmental hazards (geophysical, technological, and biological) than more dispersed settlement does. In fact, the city-defining characteristics widely supposed to result in environmental penalties do much to account for cities' environmental advantages. As of 2008 (according to U.N. statistics), more people live in cities than in rural areas. Meyer's analysis clarifies the effects of such a profound shift, covering a full range of environmental issues in urban settings.The hardcover edition does not include a dust jacket.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31409-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    It has recently become commonplace, almost a cliché, to note that humankind crossed a notable threshold sometime around the year 2008. For the first time in history (according to United Nations statistics), the number of people said to live in cities exceeded the number classified as living in rural areas. As recently as the dawn of the twentieth century, cities housed only about 15 percent of the world’s population, itself a substantial increase since a century before.¹ Predictions are as risky here as in any other area of human behavior.² Still, there are few reasons to suppose that the urban...

  5. 2 Ecological Disruption
    (pp. 23-36)

    Human beings are simultaneously one species among many occupying the earth’s surface and unique in their power to modify the environment shared by all. Such modifications represent one cause for concern when they disrupt the ecological systems essential to the lives of other species: the assemblages of plant and animal life and the flows of water, the flows of energy, and the local conditions of soil, chemistry, and climate to which they are adjusted. On first thought, it seems obvious that a high degree of urbanness must mean a high degree of disruption, that cities must be more ecologically damaging...

  6. 3 Resource Consumption
    (pp. 37-56)

    Stereotypes have long cast city dwellers as profligate spenders and frugality as a characteristically rural virtue. In an era of global environmental concern, such stereotypes project urbanites as exceptionally rapacious consumers of a finite and dwindling stock of natural resources. A recent book on the environment and urbanization, though it acknowledges that cities have some positive effects, flatly characterizes them as “sites of overconsumption.” In 1976, Lester R. Brown predicted that cities could never house a majority of the human population (as in fact they now do) because the world’s resource base could not meet what he called “the additional...

  7. 4 Pollution
    (pp. 57-74)

    If images of urban excess and rural restraint in resource consumption are widespread, ones contrasting the polluted city with the clean, fresh countryside are even more so. The accuracy of the former, we have seen, leaves something to be desired. But surely the latter must be essentially correct. Two intertwined arguments for an inevitable urban penalty appear to be matters of mere common sense. The first is that the essential characteristic of cities, the concentration of people and their activities, must necessarily mean the concentration of their waste and pollution emissions and thus higher levels of human exposure. The case...

  8. 5 Natural Hazards
    (pp. 75-92)

    In the preceding chapters, we have looked at the three main categories of human impact and have seen that some of the commonest reasons for concern about urbanization have little basis. But if the environment is something human beings can endanger, it is also something that—even in its natural state—can endanger them. To assess the full environmental consequences of urbanization, one must also ask how it affects the safety of individuals and societies from the hazards of their surroundings. Such was already a concern in the discussion of pollution; we turn next to the hazards people face from...

  9. 6 Technological Hazards
    (pp. 93-106)

    It does, after all, make sense that because their environments have been largely reshaped by people, cities might often be safer refuges from the dangers of nature than more natural settings can be. But the same argument seems to give away the game where human-made risks are concerned. These would appear inescapably more prevalent to the degree that one’s surroundings themselves are human-made, that what Cicero called the “second nature” people have created predominates most plainly over the “first nature” from which they have fashioned it.¹ In other words, the hazards of technology, to give them that name, should be...

  10. 7 Infectious Disease
    (pp. 107-124)

    Environmental hazards that affect human beings can come from inanimate forces or objects or from other living creatures. Of these last, it is some of the smallest ones that do the most harm, the microorganisms and parasites responsible for infectious diseases, ones as varied in character and severity as cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, influenza, and the common cold. Of all biological hazards, they seem the most likely on the face of things to display an urban penalty—more likely than attacks by wild animals, surely, or even by domesticated ones. The damage done by locusts, weeds, and blights chiefly falls...

  11. 8 Human Habitat
    (pp. 125-144)

    Commonsense environmental antiurbanism makes its last stand on the ground of overall human well-being. Even if a high degree of urbanness best protects the natural environment and even if it best protects people against environmental hazards, do these benefits justify the other costs? One set of arguments can be classified as sociological: urbanization is undesirable because cities are the places where abject poverty and other forms of human misery are most common and most intense. The second is psychological: city life runs counter to the deepest needs of human nature. In either case, the challenge is a serious one. But...

  12. 9 Conclusion
    (pp. 145-148)

    This book began by defining urbanness as the underlying quality that the places we call cities possess in a high degree. It then examined the principal commonsense arguments for expecting high levels of urbanness to lead to undesirable outcomes in the seven major areas of human-environment interaction. For the most part, it found, the evidence did not support those arguments, many of which turned out to rest to a significant degree on errors, faulty assumptions, and fallacies in reasoning. Cities, indeed, possess many environmental advantages, at least partial or potential ones, that the commonsense view fails to acknowledge.

    It is...

  13. Appendix A
    (pp. 149-150)
    William B. Meyer and Santiago Reyes Contreras
  14. Notes
    (pp. 151-190)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-222)
  16. Urban and Industrial Environments
    (pp. None)
  17. Index
    (pp. 223-234)