Consumption Cities

Consumption Cities

Urbanization: Crises and Opportunities

More than fifty percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and in the coming decades that percentage is projected to increase, particularly in Africa and Asia. Steward Pickett, a well renowned ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, is currently delivering a six part weekly lecture series at the Cooper Union on Cities in Crisis: Ecological Transformations.

The first installment kicked off earlier this month, when Pickett discussed the new global reality of cities and how rapidly cities are changing in form and function. He illustrated the diversity of those forms, from informal make shift settlements (like Annawadi), to peri-urban areas, to modern high rise developments. The primary mode of cities has also been changing from mercantile, to industrial, to sanitary to what is now most common in the global north- consumption cities. What these cities consume have ecological ramifications beyond their borders.

While globalization is not new phenomenon, it has intensified in recent decades, and there is an increasing interconnectedness between places. Pickett argued that our old definitions of what urban and rural are may no longer be useful in understanding the cities of today or tomorrow. As part of the Ernst Strüngmann Forum, Pickett and his colleagues developed a new framework for analyzing cities called the “urban-rural continuum” or the “continuum of urbanity. ” This approach looks beyond parameters like percentage of impervious cover and instead describes cities by four dimensions:
1. Livelihood- how people support themselves, skill sets, opportunities
2. Lifestyle- social identity, consumption, recreation
3. Connectivity- how people and places are connected
4. Place-natural resources, resiliency, climate

An example he offered to illustrate the continuum was how diets in Asia are shifting toward more meat, and how Australia is supplying some of this demand. Australian forests are being cleared for livestock, and fruit bat habitats have been destroyed. As a result, the fruit bats have migrated to Australian cities, where they have established colonies and have transmitted a virus that has infected horses and can be transferred to humans. The urban-rural continuum, Steward showed, can span continents.

At Brighter Green we have been deeply interested in how changes in urbanization, migration and globalization have resulted in shifts in diet and what the resulting social and environmental implications are. (Read Brighter Green’s Policy Papers to learn more.) It is great to see a framework for discussing urbanization and urban planning that recognizes the ecological implications of consumption and the global reach of these impacts.

The remainder of Pickett’s lecture series will explore the idea of cities as ecosystems, their vulnerability to natural disturbances, and the need for an environmental ethic to promote an equitable distribution of resources. The series will conclude by asking “How do we facilitate the benefits of cities and incorporate them into ethical urban thinking? How can we transform crisis into opportunity?”

Photo by Wan Park