If you asked college seniors where they wanted to go after graduation, what responses would you get? New York City. San Francisco. Washington, D.C...the list goes on. Notice something? They’re all cities. Moving to cities is nothing new—our nation and those around the world are increasingly becoming more urbanized.
What if you asked them about the biggest environmental problems we face? Some might say the dying 1,429-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. Several more will say climate change. All the coal we extracted from West Virginia and all the gas we want to take from the Standing Rock Sioux contribute to a warming planet. In turn, the sea continues to rise, natural disasters wreck more homes, cities, and even countries...and because of what? Because of how we live. In our cities, we demand more. More energy, more cars, you name it. But here’s the thing. What makes cities attractive—inclusion and community—can solve the climate crisis. When we make our cities and communities inclusive and happy, we get a double dividend. They’re more sustainable, too.
First, what is the relationship between cities and the environment? The world is rapidly urbanizing, with more than half of the world living in cities, and the number continues to climb. As our world fixates on cars and as our cities spread further out to meet housing demands, quality of life suffers with rising air pollution and resource depletion. The United Nations estimates that for every 10 percent increase in urban sprawl, there’s almost a 6 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
And that sprawl disproportionately affects poor people and people of color. As land consumption increases, poorer people are pushed into dense housing units and slums, which are often devoid of basic services and exposed to environmental hazards. All the while, richer people can afford less dense suburban homes that further strain our resources. As William Fischel argues, zoning is a policy tool that seeks to preserve owner occupied communities and therefore exclude black and poor people. These same people have decreased access to green spaces, with grocery stores miles away and inadequate public transportation. Similarly, older and disabled people have limited mobility in a spread out city. How can this model be inclusive, yet alone sustainable, if the privileged reign while the many poor in places like Flint can be pumped lead contaminated water?
Inclusion means eschewing our ideas of access and change. Impacted communities know best about the problems they face. That’s why we need to make change community centered and owned. Take Dharavi, a settlement in Mumbai with many slums and figuring out what to do with housing, as an example. Residents are hoping to form the Dharavi Community Land Trust. The organization would enact change because it would listen to the needs of residents and neighborhood associations. The residents could imagine their own future because they are no longer denied governance. Robin Hambleton, in "Leading the Inclusive City," contends further that social commitments must be tied to our leaders. From place-less leaders unconcerned about impacts to the communities, he imagines place-based leaders who are vested in their communities. Simply put, if the most excluded are included and have agency, then we establish co-responsibility.
Co-responsibility means that we build a shared sense of community and respect for one another. Imagine a world where people have a vested belief in making change and communities design cities on their own terms. For the people that have no parks, a community garden could be ideal. For another community, people could call for building improvements for disabled and older folks. An inclusive and community based society demands participation whereby everyone knows they have a voice.
Those people aren’t asking for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; they want social justice. A community pushing for better public transportation so that disabled and older people have more mobility has the added bonus of improving sustainability. Inclusive cities use resources more efficiently, emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and are more walkable. As Charles Montgomery explains in "Happy Cities," we need all of these components working together—nature, mobility, and density—to be hitting at an equilibrium. It’s not enough to see nature; we also need to touch and interact with nature. It’s not enough to have public transportation; we need businesses and community centers to be walkable. And if every city does this for inclusion, imagine how sustainable our world can be.
Let’s reframe that question one last time. Ask those seniors about the biggest problems their communities face. Lack of affordable housing coupled with housing discrimination. Slow and inefficient public transportation. You’d be hard pressed to find someone that says climate change. But I and others believe that designing an inclusive city is designing a sustainable city, and eventually, a sustainable world.
Jeff Feng is a Trinity senior.
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