EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing Cities for People: The Ecology of Cities

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 mobility for people and freight that fueled the phenomenal urban growth of the twentieth century.

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

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 600 miles away. Mexico City’s burgeoning population, living at an altitude of over 9,000 feet, depends on the costly pumping of water from 100 miles away that must be lifted over 3,000 feet to augment inadequate water supplies. Beijing is planning to draw water from the Yangtze River basin some 800 miles away. 10

Food comes from even greater distances, as 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 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 surround them. The growing scarcity of water and the high energy cost of transporting it over long distances may 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 or take public transportation wherever they need to go. 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. 12

He describes with pride an after-the-fact integration into the local ecosystem of San Luis Obispo, a California town of 43,000 residents 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.” 13

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 partly by nature. As oil prices rise, urban fruit and vegetable production will expand into vacant lots and onto rooftops. 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 after oil production peaks. 14

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10. Los Angeles from Sandra Postel, Last Oasis, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 20; 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; population estimate from U.S. Census Bureau, State & County Quickfacts, electronic database, at quickfacts.census.gov, updated 5 May 2009.

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

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