Natural Areas of the Future May Be Cities

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 29, 2011 12

Our cities are by no means bereft of nature or green spaces.

A baby born in India was recently selected to represent the seven billionth person added to the world. It’s clear that Homo sapiens sapiens, at least for now, aren’t in any eminent danger of going extinct.

That can’t be said for many other species, however, that share this blue planet with us. In fact, our very proliferation may mean that others will soon disappear. Our kind are consuming or polluting the “lion’s share” of the Earth’s natural resources, such as water, air and forest cover. It’s been shown that as our numbers go up, so do the numbers of plant and animal extinctions.

The world often feels crowded. Just go to a mall, a movie theater or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Perhaps that’s why many of us run way from our cities, every chance we get, to take a vacation in the most pristine and uninhabited places we can find: wild, remote nature.

What you may be surprised to learn, however, is that our big cities may be the most conservation-conscious places we can live.

Concentration for . . .

We “escape” our cities to go to remote areas; we go to the mountains. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Many of us who read the works of Henry David Thoreau in high school eventually come to a point in life where we begin to believe that a cabin in the woods is the ideal to strive for. As our “inner conservationists” begin to emerge as we mature, we yearn to leave the city for the suburb, and subsequently, the suburb for the country. On the weekends, we try to “escape” our cities to go hiking and camping in parks, refuges and remote areas. We go to the mountains.

For us, cities begin to be cast as “the enemy”; pools of pollution and wells of habitat degradation. But today, that’s far from the truth. By having the majority of the seven billion of us residing in cities, we may already be doing the greenest thing we can do.

In developed countries and in Latin America, according to the National Geographic Society, more than 70 percent of the people live in urban areas. When we concentrate ourselves in cities, the space between us is reduced. That means that the cost to the environment of transporting goods, people and even ideas is less. When we live in a big city, we don’t need to drive very far to get where we need to go and to get what we need to get, cutting down on fossil fuel consumption and air pollution. In fact, in a city, many of us don’t need to use a car at all. We walk. And apartments take less energy to heat and cool than houses.

In a city, many of us don’t need to use a car at all.

Some of our best successes in river cleanup have been in and near large cities. And a small stand of trees in an urban park can mitigate what’s known as the “urban heat island effect,” neutralizing an amount of carbon emissions not possible by a same-size woods in an area where people are more spread out.

. . . Conservation

And unlike what we might imagine, our cities are not bereft of nature. Animals such as white-tailed deer, Canada geese and coyotes have adapted well to our urban areas. As we learn more and more about the benefits that people derive from being in nature—from making us happier to growing the size of our brains—we’re beginning to understand that a small, green space within a city may benefit far more of us than a reserve in a backcountry, remote area, since 70 percent of us would actually have access to that smaller, green space.

Within our lifetimes—since 1968—the world’s population has doubled. The United Nation predicts it will hit 10 billion by this century’s end. Despite our ingrained inclinations to want to become nouveau Henry David Thoreaus—running away from the city for our cabin in the woods—the best way to conserve nature may be to flee to the metropolis.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. James Beard aka Noodin December 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    Your point is so well taken that it would be hard to argue with the benefits to mother earth. The concern that I would pose is that as we distance ourselves from nature we soon lose our respect for our beautiful nature areas. It would seem that proper awareness and application of responsible ecological techniques would be an alternative to packaging all of we humans into the cities.

    Bringing our society to an even higher level of consumerism to survive in an unnatural way is not going to protect the land conservancy, the animal life or the plant life on this planet. It indeed is part of the problem in my humble view. The fact is that most of us are so intent on having what we want when we want it, that little regard is given to the outcome.

    Would it not be nice if we not only thought of developing services and goods to serve our needs but also consider the long term effects before we build those services and goods. We need to change the way we approach current problems taking into consideration the outcome.

    All life has the gift of living on this land and we need to look at where we impede on other life. I think it begins with respect.

  2. Dennis December 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Of interest to this discussion, from BBC: “Urban ecology model needs to change”

    …”Cities are growing very rapidly, they are increasingly expansive and dispersed, sprawling in… spider-like configurations across large distances, and embedding fragments of other land uses in the rapidly changing landscape.

    Existing assessment models are based on historical but outdated urbanization patterns, ecologically, this type of expansion was having “dramatic impacts”.

    “It is driving the large-scale loss and fragmentation of natural and semi-natural habitats in several countries and cities worldwide.”

    “In countries such as the US and Australia, urbanization is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.”

    # # #

    With an ever increasing population, and a population that requires more energy and goods per person, it isn’t “green” to live anywhere. Too many people putting to much strain on the planet.

  3. John Williams December 2, 2011 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Some great points in your post Candice. Cities can of course be made even more sustainable and better connected to our natural environment than they are at present.

  4. John December 2, 2011 at 4:38 am - Reply

    A very thoughtful post. I think it depends upon the size and layout of the city though. Disconnecting people from nature cannot be a good thing.
    I was impressed by Luc Schuiten’s vision, in his Vegetal City Exhibition here in Brussels. There must be scope for reconnecting cities to nature.

  5. Megan December 1, 2011 at 5:32 am - Reply

    Candice, I agree whole-heartedly! Living in cities, as opposed to suburbia, is a much more ecologically sound method. Concentrating our population into cities not only leaves more habitat available for wildlife, but it also becomes feasible to offer services that aren’t practical when we’re all spread out (ie mass transit).

  6. Bonnie November 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    There certainly are some gorgeous city parks in the world. I have been to Minneapolis, MN, and they have the most parks of any city in the world and they are lovely, especially in the autumn.

  7. Theresa November 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    This is such a good point! Having had “homes” in both downtown Chicago and now the outer suburbs, I think our family was “greener” when downtown. We actually walked to many of our destinations or took public transportation. Recycling was more difficult, so I often decided not purchase something because disposing of the packaging was such a pain. (Clearly, it wasn’t something we “needed” but instead “wanted”.)

    That said, the hectic pace didn’t make me “feel green”. I guess what I wasn’t feeling was the calm, zen I feel when I’m going to and fro in my comfy, quiet, solitary SUV.

    Hmmm…thanks for making me rethink today.

  8. John Byrne November 30, 2011 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Candice makes a good point – living in cities uses less energy than does living in the suburbs.

    There must be a way to include – familiarization with the natural world – for city dwellers; to deal with both obesity and with Nature-Deficit Disorder. This may include creation of “natural areas” such as Central Park in New York City.

    This require good planning – to deal with 1. protection of the environment, 2. societal compatibility, and 3. economic realities.

  9. Rashaad November 30, 2011 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Living in a city could definitely be a green thing, but that depends on how you live. If you live carless and move around by public transportation, that’s definitely a green thing. But it’s more important how you live than where you live.

  10. Paula November 30, 2011 at 6:37 am - Reply

    I recently read the following article in the Financial Times on mega-cities. Most cities are horribly not-green-at-all. However, some cities manage to create more parks and green zones.
    Nevertheless, it will take considerable effort to convince me that living in a city might be the greenest thing one can do. 🙂

  11. Dennis November 29, 2011 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    The issue is overpopulation, too many people stuffed into mega-city slums. Focus should not be on living in cities, but on reducing population so few cities exist, and having the option of living a more Nature & land oriented life. The future seems to be more people, bigger cities. A bleak outlook indeed.

  12. Debra November 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Cities need to “rethink” and retool for this eventuality. Installation of “green roofs” should be considered as well as permeable paving materials and rainwater harvesting devices.

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