EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Designing Cities for People: The Ecology of Cities

Cities require a concentration of food, water, energy, and materials that nature cannot provide. Collecting these masses of materials and then dispersing them in the form of garbage, sewage, and pollutants in air and water is challenging city managers everywhere.

The evolution of modern cities was tied to advances in transport, initially for ships and trains, but it was the internal combustion engine combined with cheap oil that provided the mobility of people and freight that fueled the phenomenal urban growth of the twentieth century.

Early cities relied on food and water from the surrounding countryside, but today cities often depend on distant sources for basic amenities. Los Angeles, for example, draws much of its water from the Colorado River, some 970 kilometers (600 miles) away. Mexico City’s burgeoning population, living at an altitude of 3,000 meters, must now depend on the costly pumping of water from 150 kilometers away and must lift it 1,000 meters or more to augment its inadequate water supplies. Beijing is planning to draw water from the Yangtze River basin some 1,200 kilometers away. 10

Food comes from even greater distances, as is illustrated by Tokyo. While the city still gets its rice from the highly productive farmers in Japan, with their land carefully protected by government policy, its wheat comes largely from the Great Plains of North America and from Australia. Its corn supply comes largely from the U.S. Midwest. Soybeans come from the U.S. Midwest and the Brazilian cerrado. 11

The very oil used to move resources into and out of cities often comes from distant oil fields. Rising oil prices will affect cities, but they will affect even more the suburbs that many cities have spawned. The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain the growth of some cities.

Against this backdrop, Richard Register, author of Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature, says it is time to fundamentally rethink the design of cities. He agrees with Peñalosa that cities should be designed for people, not for cars. He goes even further, talking about pedestrian cities—communities designed so that people do not need cars because they can walk wherever they need to go or take public transportation. 12

Register says that a city should be seen as a functioning system not in terms of its parts but in terms of its whole. He also makes a convincing case that cities should be integrated into local ecosystems rather than imposed on them. 13

He describes with pride an after-the-fact integration into the local ecosystem of San Luis Obispo, a California town of 43,000 north of Los Angeles: “[It] has a beautiful creek restoration project with several streets and through-building passageways lined with shops that connect to the town’s main commercial street, and people love it. Before closing a street, turning a small parking lot into a park, restoring the creek and making the main street easily accessible to the ‘nature’ corridor, that is, the creek, the downtown had a 40 percent vacancy rate in the storefronts, and now it has zero. Of course it’s popular. You sit at your restaurant by the creek...where fresh breezes rustle the trees in a world undisturbed by car noise and blasting exhaust.” 14

For Register, the design of the city and its buildings become a part of the local landscape, capitalizing on the local ecology. For example, buildings can be designed to be heated and cooled by nature as much as possible. Urban fresh fruit and vegetable production will expand into vacant lots and onto rooftops as oil prices rise. Cities can largely live on recycled water that is cleaned and used again and again. The “flush and forget” water system will become too costly for many water-short cities in a world after peak oil. 15

In a world of land, water, and energy scarcity, the cost of each will increase substantially, shifting the terms of trade between the countryside and cities. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the terms of trade have favored cities because they control capital and technology, the scarce resources. But if land and water become the scarcest resources, then people in rural areas who control them may sometimes have the upper hand. With a Plan B economy based on renewable energy, a disproportionate share of that energy, particularly wind and plant-based energy, will come from nearby rural areas. 16

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10. Los Angeles from Sandra Postel, Last Oasis, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 20; Mexico City from Joel Simon, Endangered Mexico (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997); Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, Country Report of the People’s Republic of China (Marseilles, France: World Water Council, 2003), pp. 60–61.

11. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Grain: World Markets and Trade and Oilseeds: World Markets and Trade (Washington, DC: various issues).

12. Richard Register, “Losing the World, One Environmental Victory at a Time—And a Way to Solve That Problem,” essay (Oakland, CA: Ecocity Builders, Inc., 31 August 2005); Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature: Revised Edition (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2006).

13. Register, “Losing the World, One Environmental Victory at a Time,” op. cit. note 12.

14. Ibid.; population estimate from U.S. Census Bureau, Population Finder, electronic database, at factfinder.census.gov, viewed 16 August 2007.

15. Register, “Losing the World, One Environmental Victory at a Time,” op. cit. note 12.

16. See Chapter 12 for further discussion of the energy economy.


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