Liz Borkowski of The Pump Handle and I are doing a series this week on the future of urbanization. Given that just about half the world’s population now lives in cities, and that almost all projected demographic growth (we will come back to whether the UN’s projections on this subject are realistic in a post later this week) will occur in cities, the realities – and future – of urban life are important discussions.
Like Liz, I love cities. That may seem strange to people who know that I live out in a rural area, since many rural-dwellers don’t enjoy the bustle and noise of urban life, but for most of my life I lived in small and large cities. I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was nearly 30 – I never needed to, I relied on public transportation. I have never argued that rural life is the only way – in fact, over the years, I’ve argued that cities have an important future, and that those who argue that they are wholly products of cheap energy are wrong. That said, however, I think the UN projections and assumptions we are making about urbanization and urban life must take into account the realities of climate change and energy depletion. I think cities will change a lot in the coming decades.
Liz does a fabulous job of describing the process of urbanization to the present, and of helping us understand the ways cities contribute to economic growth and development, and what the driving forces of urbanization – and slum growth are. For those wanting a more detailed exploration of both slums and the phenomena of urban development globally, Mike Davis’ superb _Planet of Slums_ is well worth a read.
Because today is definitely not Monday the 6th, despite the date stamp on this post (see previous post), I’m going to stick with a quick summary of my previous work on cities, and a sense of where I want to go over the next week with these questions. I’m also going to give my readers an opportunity to talk about their experience adapting personally in cities, and their work on making cities viable for an unstable future. I’m lucky to know a lot of people working on urban issues, in the US and all over the world, and I want to hear about what they are seeing.
A quick summary of my previous work on cities, much of it, of course, on food:
I’m doing a lot of work to try and bring about my idea that we need a national (and international) model for Urban Right-to-Farm laws, based on the rural ones enacted in the 1970s to the present. These reduce nuisance lawsuits and enshrine a basic right to subsistence activities. Obviously, their shape would be different than rural-right-to-farm laws, but what I’m envisioning involves the right to keep small livestock, front yard gardens, clotheslines, very small scale commercial sales in residential neighborhoods, etc… I’ll be doing a post on this subject when I write about cities in the US later this week.
I’ve also argued that the future farmers of the US and much of the developed world will come out of the cities and suburbs by demographic necessity (our aging farming populations and the fact that most of the next generation has already left agriculture), and begun to speculate about what this might mean for our agriculture – we’re engaged in a massive experiment – for the first time in human history, the people who grow our food won’t have been mostly raised on farms, learning the practices of agriculture and their parents’ knees.
Another thing that the developed world has often lost, but could reclaim is a traditional partnership between urban and rural places – not the traditional colonialist model in which cities make use of rural areas, but do not fully participate in them, but a reciprocal arrangement, common in many places in the world. It is normal for Russians to have dachas, summerhouses where urban dwellers retreat to grow gardens and forage for mushrooms and berries. It is common for central Africans to have cattle in the villages that are cared for by their families and that they own and visit regularly. It was once common in the developed world for low-income people to go out to the harvest in the summer, earning money and enjoying a summer period in the country, harvesting, depending on the country, grapes or hops or other products. Even the US has such a tradition, with fish and deer camps common among American Native peoples. But most of us have lost those connections – and both urban and rural areas need them!
One of the great advantages of urban life is that urban eaters produce food wastes that can then be used to produce high-quality, dense protein. I’ve often argued that the kind of urban food production that is common in the Global South (and even in highly developed cities of the global south) has to be a part of the overall food picture in a future society facing the dual crises of energy depletion and climate change.
One of the memes of the peak oil community is that you all must get out of the city right now, run for your lives, flee! I don’t buy that one – that doesn’t mean I think that cities aren’t going to come with challenges, but I don’t think that cities are all doomed. Here’s more about that.
I’ve written a bit about the supposed sustainability of cities – there’s a lot of talk about the comparative impact of rural and urban dwellers. The problem is that neither cities nor suburbs nor rural places in the developed world are sustainable – period. And part of that comes from the fact that we don’t actually live where we live – that we all rely heavily on a footprint of “shadow acres” and “shadow emissions” that are transposed across the globe. A move towards a world that has an actual future involves us understanding that we are fully responsible for all of our outputs and consumption, and living more in our own places, wherever they may be.
I promise to write something new soon, but in the meantime, this will get you started! And please keep checking Liz’s blog too for more good stuff – I forsee fruitful exchange!