A very typical response to my writing can be summarized as: “But… cities?!?” How are we going to fit cities into this future world? My feeling is that we can’t. Mostly.
I’ve never explicitly said that cities are not optimal, but I think it’s fairly obvious what my biases are. I will be honest, I don’t like urban environments. I don’t like the noise. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the mess. Just everywhere mess! I’m not fond of the pace or the congestion. In 24-hour places like New York City, I can’t sleep. I am generally uncomfortable (translate: nauseous) in structures that I can feel moving, and I can feel the sway in tall buildings. I absolutely hate elevators. In the city, one can’t have goats. Rarely chickens. There’s no horizon. Few healthy old trees. Utterly insufficient gardens. And there are no stars.
Now, I know there are cities that are not this bad. Or I know one, anyway. Albuquerque is a city of about 750,000 people with maybe a half dozen moderately tall buildings downtown. Yet it’s not too horizontally sprawling, being held in check by mountains and volcanoes and Indigenous lands. And a water supply that is strictly tied to the river valley. But within the city, there are many farms and gardens and a wide wetlands, the bosque, along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chickens and goats and alpacas are everywhere (except in the Rio Rancho suburb, which is also the ugliest, sprawling-est part of New Mexico). The skies are brilliant all day, all night, all through the year. You can go wandering at 2am and feel safe. Nothing is open past 10pm, so apart from a sporadic teen in a loud car, it’s quiet. Sleepy even. There is never a rush. It’s called the land of mañana only somewhat jokingly. It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else; it’s the largest small town in the world. And it smells like chile, rain on parched earth, cedar smoke, and sage brush. With the odd dash of manure…
So cities can be accommodating places. It depends on the people, I suppose. Burqueans are Westerners — laconic and lazy and not terribly interested in your issues. But I haven’t been in many cities like that. And maybe Albuquerque doesn’t actually count as a city. There are horse hitches outside buildings. With hitched horses.
But my preferences are hardly average nor all that important. What is important is that cities make no ecological or biophysical sense. And to get out of this mess we need to bring our living back within the realm of good sense.
I could begin by pointing to the ridiculously fragile locations of many of the largest urban centers. No amount of techno-magical thinking is going to keep Boston above water. Or New York. Or Miami. I could fill pages with that list. Then add on those that might be marginally above water but currently rely upon groundwater or coastal rivers for drinking water — which will be contaminated with seawater long before the streets turn into canals. Ought to toss extreme fire danger onto the list also, taking out much of California, Greece, perhaps most of the Australian continent. And then there’s Phoenix which may quite literally run out of water. Of course, many other US Sunbelt cities — including Albuquerque — are going to discover that a desert location can not, by definition, provide water for millions of people. Once fossil groundwater is pumped dry (in about, oh, ten years…) there won’t be water coming out of the taps. Same goes for most of the cities in the two bands around 25-30° latitude away from the equator that get little moisture because planetary air flow is uncooperative (though this may change… in ways that might be good… maybe). Then there’s just pure heat. Adding a degree or so to the global average — which is inevitable at the current level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere even if we were to miraculously stop emissions today — will turn urban areas that are merely hot now into uninhabitable ovens, with atmospheric heat magnified by urban heating. Just for completeness, there are quite a few places that will simply collapse as ground water is depleted or as permafrost melts. Oh, and then there’s Detroit and other urban disaster zones — places so completely degraded by industrial mess-making that soil, water and air in these locations will be toxic to most life-forms for many human generations. So. Yeah. There are problems.
Let’s give it a different framing. There are large areas — most of which contain large cities — in which property is no longer insurable for at least one type of disaster. You can’t buy flood insurance in broad swaths of New Jersey or Florida. You can’t buy fire insurance in Orange County, California. Some actuary — a person whose job is calculating odds and putting a monetary value on risk — has determined that the odds are not in your favor. Full stop. More precisely the probability of an insurance claim paid by the company being greater than all the money you pay that company to buy the insurance is too high for the company to even begin taking your money. (And they really want to take your money!) There will be a disaster that creates a claim, and it will happen before you can pay much into your policy. Best you open a bank account and start dumping all your paychecks in there because that’s what it will cost to live in these uninsurable areas. (Though for now in this country, taxpayers are serving as the bank account for the most costly uninsurable properties.)
The risk of a flood happening in New Jersey is so high and immediate that you (and the insurance industry) can count on having a flooded house. And there are many houses that will be flooded. New Jersey is a densely populated region, especially so where risk of flood is greatest. This is not an anomaly. New Jersey is not unusually silly in siting urban areas. The urban areas in New Jersey grew up near water, rather than in a less flood-prone area further inland, just as urban areas grow near water everywhere else in the world — because water makes for easy transport of large volumes of stuff, lowering the costs of trade. There is and always was risk of flooding in these urban areas. But the floods happened infrequently before ocean warming made energetic storms that could throw large volumes of water up on the coast a regular — and predictable — occurrence. The same sort of calculations can be made for fire, for structural damages and I would imagine for sheer uninhabitability — though I doubt actuaries will have much to say about that. There are no insurance policies for putting property where humans simply can’t survive.
Because we’re supposed to be smarter than that. No, we’re supposed to be above all that, able to engineer our way forward in any unfavorable circumstance. (Witness the “let’s move to Mars” idiocy.) And in much urban development it’s not even about overcoming the likely risks. Risk-prone and degraded properties are developed by corporations who have no intention of owning the property long term. They build structures and sell those “improved properties” to others as quickly as they can. If they even bother to investigate the risks of living in that area, they don’t broadcast that information. They often take steps to conceal any qualities in a property that will lower the sale price. This is such a commonplace it’s a clichéd plot point in movies and novels.
Cities are located in the best places to move goods around and in the easiest, cheapest places to develop property for sale. This last is more a feature of former colonies which made wealth through this process of appropriating, “improving” and selling land. In the hearts of former empires, cities existed before wealth extraction turned to development of land. But a good number of them have caught up with their former colonies. Los Angeles has nothing on London sprawl. This method of making money — acquire, build and sell quickly at the highest profit — will necessarily create concentrated development in places that historically were either farmland or empty land. In the latter case, there were reasons that humans had not built things there. Many of those reasons were ecological. It made no sense to put a structure there, let alone a whole city of them. But empty lands are cheapest to develop, so the reasons were ignored. Wetlands were drained. Forests were cleared. Grasslands were paved over. Wells were drilled deep into desert rock to pull up the remnants of the last glacial meltwaters. Homes and businesses were plopped onto newly laid roads with no concern for long term durability. That was the point of building in this way. If the costs of locating structures in ecologically sustainable places were paid, then there would be no profit. So the last few hundred years has seen cities grow in places where they would always be under threat from natural processes and in fact magnify those threats by ignoring them. By cutting those costs.
But then cities have never been great. They’re good for concentrating and controlling the labor pool. That’s it. A city is now and always has been a warehouse for laborers. It is the cheapest warehouse. People are packed into cities with no accommodation for their actual lives. No space for anything. No way to produce anything except through market mechanisms of centralized production. This is by design. Because the laborers are also the market. If they are meeting their own needs, they aren’t buying stuff. Cities are very good at stripping all agency from a large group of humans, making them completely dependent on the market for every need. You can’t sneeze in a city without it profiting someone who is not you. And you can’t even begin to feed or house or clothe yourself. There are no resources for you to do any of this in a city.
Cities may be marginally better at leveraging concentrated capital into cultural institutions than a more dispersed settlement pattern. Maybe. Not that rich folk won’t fund their favorite arts wherever they live. Witness the magnificent theatre, music, and visual arts thriving in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. But cities absolutely suck at meeting our biophysical needs — from food to companionship to a non-toxic environment. Call me what you will, but when the choice is between a secure food supply and cultural attractions, I’m going with food.
Some people have noted this conflict between urban living and actual living. There are efforts to clean up the toxic messes we’ve created (created, again, by design… toxicity happens because business will not pay the full costs of doing things safely and cleanly). There are urban gardens sprouting in empty lots. There are calls for less car traffic and more travel by bike and foot. There is a return to the idea of neighborhood. People are attempting to meet their physical and emotional needs within the structures of a city. I am not sure any of this is going to work. Because that is not how a city works.
A city works by depriving most of its inhabitants of the means to meet their basic needs, forcing them to work for wages so that they can buy those needs and produce profits. That is what cities are designed for and that is what they do best. There is not even the space in a city to allow its citizens to provide for themselves. Everything must be produced elsewhere and shipped into the city. And shipping is increasingly a problem both because we have to stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and because it is increasingly expensive to acquire fossil fuels. All the plans I’ve seen so far do not address this basic problem.
Here is one example: vertical gardens, growing food in a tower to maximize growing area but minimize the horizontal footprint so that a “farm” will fit within the confines of a city. I don’t think these are well conceived. Half a minute’s thought on what actually goes into growing healthy plants reveals several fatal flaws in the design. Attempts to produce food where there is no soil, where water has to be pumped, and where sunlight has to be synthesized with electricity are costly if not futile. And all these tools and raw materials still have to be sourced and produced elsewhere and then shipped in. It may be that we use more resources in building a vertical farm than if we just grew a real farm. And we won’t be producing very much food in this resource-sucking system. We may be able to grow some leafy vegetables, but those vegetables will be lacking in nutrition relative to food grown in a living ecosystem. There isn’t even space for grains and pulses in a vertical garden unless it’s very vertical. Which seems expensive. Not a project we’re going to be able to maintain in a contracting economy that is generally out of resources.
Even if it were not expensive though, vertical farming is not producing food. Synthesizing a growing environment will always fail because we can’t make living systems, and that’s what is needed to grow food. Human attempts to manufacture biology fail because we don’t fully understand how biology works and maybe can’t know being embedded within biology. Further, I suspect most synthesized foods will not meet human nutrition needs even if all the building blocks we know about are included. There are emergent properties and interdependencies and entanglements that we can’t begin to understand, never mind create. The chemical compounds in a berry do not make a berry. A berry is a particular arrangement of its chemical composition along with a large number of microbes and other non-berry materials all of which make up the nutritional content of the berry when you pop the whole living thing in your mouth. And we don’t know what of all that berry and non-berry stuff is essential to our digestive tract to turn that berry into food for our cells. We can’t make a berry because we don’t know what a berry is. What we do know is that it is always more than the sum of its broken down parts. And that is what synthesizing is, a sum of brokenness.
But these ideas keep manifesting because we think rather highly of ourselves. We believe that we can engineer our way over any problem. We really haven’t done that though. We’ve thrown a huge wealth of the planet’s energy and resources into creating this style of living. Our technologies are useless without that resource flow. Just as importantly, our technologies are useless at containing the waste flowing out of that system. And most importantly, our technologies are designed to work within a profit-driven system. When that breaks down, when there is no profit, there is no technology. We aren’t going to put scarce resources and effort into maintaining the tools; we’ll produce what we need directly at scales that don’t require those costly tool systems.
And that’s the main reason I believe that we will be abandoning cities. They will break down. They are a technology that only works while there are abundant resources, while there is capacity for waste absorption, and while there are profits to be made on all those flows. We aren’t going to put effort into maintaining this tool if it no longer serves us. We won’t have the time or the wherewithal. We will need to produce what we need to live.
Some are bemoaning the idea of humans dispersing into the countryside. And maybe that’s a problem if those dispersed humans are also bringing along their wasteful, resource-sucking lifestyles. But I’m not sure that will be possible. There won’t be resources to waste or suck. Not only that, but most people are not inclined toward messing up their own homes. Degradation of the land happens when those resources are sucked out of the land to be used by people living elsewhere. Humans have lived in dispersed settlement patterns, integrated within our ecosystems, for a very long time, much longer than we’ve been “civilized”. This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature. That humans uniquely have the potential to transcend nature and invent their way toward meeting biophysical needs independent of nature. None of this is in any way real. Putting a lot of humans in a confined space will not magically rewild the rest of the world. We will still be sucking those resources. More resources than if we lived in a place where we didn’t need to maintain an artificial living environment through transport and tools. More resources than if we lived within the carrying capacity of the lands we fully inhabit — as we have for most of our existence.
And make no mistake, the land is going to see that we do that. This is what is happening. We have exceeded carrying capacity at all scales. There are mechanisms in living systems that prevent this. We are experiencing those mechanisms. We are experiencing the consequences of exceeding carrying capacity for the planet. This will be fixed. And it will be completely out of our hands. Cities will be abandoned because we will be dealing with all the consequences of cities and returning to a way of living that we know works within nature. Lots of smallish towns and settlements surrounded by and interpenetrated with land that can produce our needs.
I suspect our urban centers will be very much like Albuquerque…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021