Concrete Jungles: How our urban landscape has shaped our relationship with nature

By Ronnie Miller & Rachel Major

TL;DR Cities are where the battle of climate change will be won or lost. Today our bustling cities hold a dark secret-inadequate infrastructure that leaves tragedies like air pollution, drought, hunger, disease in its wake. So how can we make our concrete jungles more like, well, regular jungles?

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Cities: Our Centers, Our Failures

San Francisco. New York. Tokyo. Beijing. When we hear these words, we instantly imagine a similar picture all across the globe: bustling, vibrant cities bursting at the seams with activity, the epicenters of development and innovation. We hear of people flocking to cities, to make a living or to fulfill their dreams of starting a company, becoming a star, or striking it rich.

But there’s a darker side to this glorified fantasy. In 2014, 54% of the world’s population was inhabiting our world’s cities. But by 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas (United Nations). As more and more of the world’s population crowd into our city streets, we may find the walls around us crumbling in the face of accelerating climate change because we did not build a proper foundation.

Already, the infrastructure holding cities together is beginning to falter. The truth is, the way we have built cities now is bad for us -- smog chokes the life out of the air, lack of water leaves inhabitants parched, and contamination from the air and acidic precipitation renders the soil barren and useless. Traffic jams plague our cities every morning and evening, with an endless chorus of shouts and honks playing on repeat.

Current estimates project that global urban air pollution is the primary cause of approximately one million premature deaths annually, and costs developed countries 2% of their GDP while costing developing countries 5% (Ksenija).

At the same time, climate change is drastically threatening our cities, waging war on our current way of life. The 2017 Southern California wildfires, which devastated nearly 1.4 million acres, cost over $13 billion in damage, and claimed the lives of 43 citizens, was a battle caused by drought-stricken grasslands waiting to be provoked (Cal Fire). Across the world major cities suffer from food deserts, drought, floods, tropical storms, earthquakes, power shortages, and are often unable to provide basic resources to countless of their most vulnerable cities.

This is not sustainable. And it’s certainly not good for us or the planet.

How did it get this bad? How come the primary centers of our way of life represent our biggest failures of infrastructure, planning, and resources?

Industrialization: Ally or Enemy?

When the Industrial Revolution struck America in 1870, there was a massive, rapid upheaval and overhaul of the previously agrarian way of life. Economic growth boomed, with the introduction of mass production methods using machinery, the establishment of transcontinental railroads, the spread of investments and banking, and distribution and communications improvement (History.com).

This brought about a new era of power and growth. Technological innovation and enormous wealth generation quickly followed suit. Suddenly, America was a force to be reckoned with on a global sphere.

From this quick, surface-level look at industrialization, it would seem that industrialization was a great ally. But this glance is extremely misleading. From the start of industrialization, it was clear that cities would be a necessity, a cornerstone to the evolving human society. Yet those who first built them did so with incredibly short-term thinking. They were built simply to make sure that more people could move in and inhabit the cities for more labor and trade (British Library). They were engineered with little regard for labor laws or air quality or the future in general since this was not a concern of the leadership (BBC). While in America we are sometimes lucky enough to have enough planning to have cities with grids, this chaos can be seen in any older European city -- a mess of streets in random directions, likely grown from some likely center outward.

There is not doubt that we still need cities, but the fact remains that we could have built these global hubs of human connection so much better. Our test is fixing our previous mistakes and re-engineering our cities to truly suit human needs -- sustainably -- and truly build conditions sustainable for all life.

Concrete Jungles

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Once again, we turn to our mentor in nature and wonder: how would nature build a city? How can we make our concrete jungles work more like, well, regular jungles?

What we see as high rises, city streets, downtown, and districts, nature sees as “emergents,” the “canopy,” the “understory,” and the “cryptosphere.” While the terms themselves may sound complicated, the latter are simply the components of a typical rainforest (Active Wild). These ecological interfaces are constantly moving parts with steady, constant nutrient cycles in a dynamic but harmonious equilibrium. How can we make our cities naturally transfer vital nutrients, like water, food, and energy, to improve urban design.

We are now faced with a test: overhauling our current city lives to mirror these more efficient, more harmonious methods. Can we realign our loyalties from our tempting yet harmful enemies to our true allies?

It seems we may be able to. Biophilic design incorporates aspects of nature into our daily lives: in offices, buildings, and throughout the streets. More and more, large corporations are incorporating biophilic design into their campuses. Amazon’s new Spheres office center in Seattle has three glass domes that hold over 40,000 plants, most from the cloud forest ecosphere. Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters surrounds a 30-acre park, and features an orchard and pond. And even Facebook has a 9-acre rooftop garden upon its headquarters (NBC). The results? Increased worker productivity, lower levels of stress, and a healthier workplace environment. It seems drawing from nature and incorporating it into our daily lives is a much better idea than the concrete jungles we reside in now.

Cities are the battlefield where the fight with climate change will be won or lost. The quality of life in cities is in a disastrously drastic condition. But imagine this: we could remake cities into habitat corridors, serving migration for birds, and integrating with the local landscape instead of building on top of it. Right now, we look at cities and development in general as developing over nature, that we have a need to destroy it in its natural state in order to make it habitable to us. We assumed, that in order to develop, we had to destroy nature, and that it could not be a part of our city lives. But instead of cities being a drain on society, a bio-inspired city could be net positive: clean water, generate electricity, grow crops, and house animals and people alike. Cities do not have to be our enemies -- they can truly be our allies. Nature has beautiful civilizations of its own that don’t have to ruin the earth.

Isn’t it time we learned from that?


bob lawblaw