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Cities Are the Environmental Solution, Not the Problem

Over the next 25 years, the U.S. population will grow by 70 million—and dense, walkable urban areas will be essential

Seattle (by: Katie Jones, creative commons license)

For a long time, America's environmental community celebrated wilderness and the rural landscape while disdaining cities and towns. Thoreau's Walden Pond and John Muir's Yosemite Valley were seen as the ideal, while cities were seen as sources of dirt and pollution, something to get away from. If environmentalists were involved with cities at all, it was likely to be in efforts to oppose development, with the effect of making our built environment more spread out, and less urban.

We've come a long way since then, if still not far enough. We were and remain right to uphold nature and the rural landscape as places critical to celebrate and preserve. But what we realize now, many of us anyway, is that cities and towns - the communities where for millennia people have aggregated in search of more efficient commerce and sharing of resources and social networks - are really the environmental solution, not the problem: the best way to save wilderness is through strong, compact, beautiful communities that are more, not less, urban and do not encroach on places of significant natural value. As my friend who works long and hard for a wildlife advocacy organization puts it, to save wildlife habitat we need people to stay in "people habitat."

Arles, Provence, France (c2011 FK Benfield)

For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, they must be communities where people want to live, work, and play. We must make them great, but always within a decidedly urban, nonsprawling form. As it turns out, compact living - in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools, and the like assembled at a walkable scale - not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don't drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure. While recent authors such as Edward Glaeser and David Owen are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.

A lot of my professional friends are committed urbanists as well as committed environmentalists. We understand the environmental advantages of urban living so thoroughly that we take it for granted that other people do, too. But we make that mistake at our - and the planet's - peril. The increased development and maintenance of strong, sustainable cities and towns will not happen without a concerted effort.

Alexandria, VA (by: Chad Connell, creative commons license)

A lot is riding on the outcome: 83 percent of America's population - some 259 million people - live in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. Somewhat astoundingly (and as I have written previously), 37 of the world's 100 largest economies are U.S. metros. New York, for example, ranks 13th, with a $1.8 trillion economy equivalent to that of Switzerland and the Netherlands combined; Los Angeles (18th) has an economy that is bigger than Turkey's; Chicago's (21st) is larger than Switzerland's, Poland's, or Belgium's.

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Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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