The newest threat to the environment relates to the unsustainable use of our natural resources, and the new polluters include tall office buildings and average homes that leak heat and waste energy, generating greenhouse gases. Cars are another culprit, as they clog our streets and guzzle fossil fuel. Even parks and residential gardens are a problem, for they devour gallons of water. Furthermore, since they are often adorned with exotic plants, they attract relatively few native birds and animals. At the heart of the crisis lies the city, a voracious consumer of energy and other resources, as well as producing large quantities of waste that needs to be disposed of.
This is a global problem. For the first time in human history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas. The reason for this trend is obvious. Many love the lifestyle that large cities have to offer, and they offer diverse job opportunities.
As social and consumption patterns change, cities exhaust resources at a faster rate than their population grows. Moreover, urban development chews up the landscape as additional transport to needed to commute to developments, and people are choosing to live in McMansions, which require more energy to heat and cool. As a result, our capital cities are ballooning out, putting even more pressure on an already stressed environment.
All these activities draw on natural resources at a greater rate than they can be replenished. In a word, our cities are unsustainable, not only because of what happen within their boundaries, but also in the way they draw resources from the surrounding farms, quarries and mines, putting pressure on transport infrastructure.
When dealing with traditional pollution problems, it was a matter of controlling single points of contamination from a relatively few number of companies, and could easily be done by government environment protection agencies. Unsustainable practices from cities require quite a different approach. It demands commitment and cooperation from a wide range of people. These include planners, architects, developers, employers, and all levels of government. It also involves every person who lives and works in the city.
Most city dwellers aren’t connecting with the need to tread more lightly on the Earth. The way we work and live increasingly dislocates us from nature. As a result, nature is devalued, and less attention is taken to making a person committed to protecting it.
We watch the nature channel on cable rather than spending more time outdoors enjoying it first hand. Joggers prefer treadmills over a run in the park, and even when a few venture out, they are connected to their iPods, ensuring that the cacophony of birds or a whispering breeze is not heard. Rather than a short walk down to the shops, people cruise there in their four-wheel vehicles.
If living in cities means that we are disengaged from nature, is it little wonder that it is so underrated? Part of this is that people are becoming less tolerant of the variations of nature. Our houses and office buildings are air conditioned within a fraction of a degree. Where occasional breezes and natural light are considered a nuisance, air movements and lighting are supplied artificially. While there is a role for government in making our cities more sustainable, it is not as simple as building a few new train lines if people prefer to use their car everywhere. Providing parks will not draw people away from their TVs and DVDs.
The transformation to a sustainable city needs to start within us. We need to appreciate the diversities of nature and re-engage with our communities before we can embark on forging a more viable future. Once a mental shift occurs, then attitudes and lifestyles will become more environmentally-friendly. This will be based on using nature to make city living more enjoyable, not cocooning ourselves away from it.
Such a transformation will not make the city a less liveable or pleasant place to be. Quite the opposite, as people become more tuned in to their environment.