The Cost of Wealthy Modern Cities

© Indian Journal of Applied Economics and Econometrics, Vol. 7 No. 3 July-September 1998, Bangalore, India,
What this paper says is more true today than when it was written.
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ABSTRACT: Affluent cities in developed nations impose a rapidly increasing burden on the earth that cannot be sustained. Yet people elsewhere desire to copy many of these cities’ features. Cities do offer benefits. However, nature, those who live in them, those who live elsewhere, and future generations pay a high price for the earth’s affluent cities. These costs are discussed. Inhabitants derive most of the benefits from wealthy cities and make the decisions involving them. Nature and most of those who bear the burden are powerless. This is dangerous. To do better, we must look at cities in new ways and deal with them as systems that are part of the world system. In doing so, we need to protect nature and divide the planet’s resources more equitably between all people, including future generations.
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Today we are changing the face of our planet at an explosive rate. Our rapidly expanding urban areas, particularly affluent ones in “developed nations,” and how people live in them play an important role in this. These cities have an impact that reach around the world. Their high levels of consumption and waste affect people far beyond their borders, future generations, and the earth itself. Many people see features of these cities as models to emulate. And the inevitable forces of the modern world drive other cities to adopt many of their characteristics. We would be wise to examine the benefits offered by these urban areas and compare them with their costs.
North American metropolitan areas, which are surrounded by reasonably priced farm land and have roots reaching back into the mid-nineteenth century or before, are good models to examine. They are technically advanced, wealthy, and have plenty of room to grow. They also have districts which predate modern transportation that present problems similar to those many other cities are experiencing. I shall call these conurbations “technorich cities.”
Cities have always attracted people because they provide a wide variety of jobs, educational opportunities, social contacts, cultural experiences, entertainment, and shopping. They offer businesses skilled employees, easily procured materials, energy, and access to markets. Vital, energetic cities are economic and cultural assets to regions, nations, and sometimes the world.

In technorich cities streetcars (and later buses), rapid transit, and commuter railroads enabled people to escape congested central urban areas and move to low density suburbs or nearby communities. This caused cities to expand along these routes. Later, automobiles, trucks, and electronic communication permitted people, businesses, and institutions to move anywhere people were willing to commute. This spurred cities to expand over nearby countryside. Safe water distribution systems (sometimes bringing water from hundreds of miles away) and sanitation systems made it practical and safe for large numbers of people to live in urban areas.
Modern modes of transportation and communication have put these cities in close contact with both the region right around them and remote places on the earth. This has enabled them to become large, wealthy, and to provide a high standard of living to their inhabitants. However, there are costs related to the physical aspects of these cities—some obvious, some not. They are paid not only by those who live in them, but also by those who do not, and by nature.
Technorich Cities Are Bad for Nature
The energetic technorich city is ever greedy for more land and is a high metabolizer, consuming large amounts of energy and raw materials from which it produces products and services. In doing so, following the laws of physics, it produces waste materials in the form of pollution, and waste energy in the form of heat.

According to the Farm Land Trust, the United States lost four million acres of prime farm land to urbanization between 1982 and 1992.i As American population grows, its food surplus will disappear and, if present trends continue, will neither be available for export nor to meet America’s own needs. Considering the deterioration of the earth’s soils, for countries grown dependent on American exports, this will be tragic.

Land that once supported oxygen producing, water retaining vegetation has been stripped of topsoil, built upon, paved, or replaced with thin layers of sod. Now instead of replenishing aquifers, water is quickly shed into waterways, increasing the danger of flooding, and causing water levels to be low in streams, lakes, and reservoirs when moisture is needed during dry seasons. Chemicals used on pavement and lawns pollute runoff. Pavement absorbs radiation from the sun and retains heat, significantly increasing local temperature in cities. This raises the demand for air-conditioning—which produces still more heat. Streets and parking lots also require energy to produce, maintain, and illuminate them. Still more pavement is needed to carry traffic past parking lots.
Traditional communities obtained food from the surrounding countryside and returned organic waste to it to help maintain its fertility. Now, large cities need more food than can be produced nearby and demand exotic varieties in both summer and winter. To meet these demands, in the United States large food distribution companies desiring a steady, year-round supply of fruits and vegetables buy from producers thousands of miles away. Meat, poultry and eggs are increasingly obtained from agribusinesses that concentrate animals and poultry in huge complexes. This makes it uneconomical to return organic wastes to the soil. Instead, precious nutrients are deposited in landfills or find their way into waterways and aquifers which they pollute.

Chemicals are used to replace nutrients necessary to produce marketable crops, but there are few incentives to replace others that are needed for human health. Soils deprived of humus and compacted by heavy farming equipment deteriorate over time. To maximize profits, farms in many distant producing areas grow a single crop, year after year. This requires the administration of ever-increasing levels of polluting fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. For a while this is profitable, but in essence, it is mining the soil of its productivity.
This practice is not limited to affluent nations. To profit from the wants of technorich cities , land in poor countries that was once farmed by peasants to feed themselves has been accumulated by rich landowners to produce cash crops for export. These landowners grow richer while many former peasants are left without work and little to eat. Sometimes the well-to-do in poor countries gain at the expense of the citizenry and environment by accepting garbage and hazardous waste from wealthy cities.

By causing us to reshape and expand our cities, the automobile has made itself indispensable. We cannot buy food, get to our job, see a doctor, or visit friends without one. Autos are a drug we have been lured into taking and now cannot get along without. Ordinary trips, which once consumed no more than human energy, now require the utilization of huge quantities of petroleum, steel, and concrete.

In the United States, people used to walk to grocery stores which had offices or apartments above them. Today, these same facilities, separated from each other and with all necessary parking, may cover from ten to fifty times as much land. Additional streets covering more land are needed to bring people to them. Over the years grocery stores have been replaced by supermarkets of ever larger size that continue to become fewer and more remote. We have no choice but to drive farther and farther to shop for food and other necessities.

This works well for businesses which save on labor costs and fuel by delivering to a few major locations. However, the total amount of time spent and miles driven by shoppers to reach these large stores dwarfs the merchants’ savings. The store owners are very aware of their costs, but the shoppers largely ignore theirs. Municipalities do no better. They react by building the roads needed to handle the additional traffic but do nothing to reduce it. In fact, zoning regulations, tax structures, lending practices, and public concepts of what is desirable dictate the consolidation of functions, such as retail outlets, at a low densities.

Bad for People, Communities, and Democracy

Without doubt automobiles are attractive—to those who are in them. They take us where we want to go, when we want to go, in comfort and privacy. When there are few of them, they get us to our destination quickly, can be fun to drive, and make us feel important. However they are a menace to everyone else, are destructive to the urban and natural environment, mutilate and kill millions of people and countless animals, consume irreplaceable resources, and pollute. And when there are many automobiles, they make urban life close to unbearable as in Los Angeles and Bangkok.
In the United States the automobile offers those who wish to, and can afford to, the potential to escape the social and economic problems, noise, pollution, and congestion (largely caused by motor vehicles) in central cities by moving out to independent legal entities called suburbs. This way affluent people can ensure that their property taxes will be used to benefit themselves and not be used to support services such as city public schools, parks, libraries, and social services. Undesirable land uses, such as housing for low income people and many types of businesses, can be kept out—although inoffensive businesses that pay high taxes may be actively solicited. This creates what may now have become a non-ending process of people leaving problems, moving away, and erecting new fences (sometimes physical ones with guarded gates) around enclaves in order to avoid facing up to communal problems. Nearly all cities in the United States are now collections of self-governing districts trying to disengage themselves from shared responsibility.

The people who escaped central cities also left much that was good and created an environment for themselves that is neither city nor country. Modern homogeneous suburbs isolate homemakers, children, the aged, and the handicapped. They lack the stimulation and educational experiences for children that farms, small towns, and older neighborhoods provide. Once children could watch their father at his trade, observe the blacksmith and the weaver, visit school friends, and go to the public library and city museum on their own. Lacking these possibilities , they may be left with activities such as passively watching television or getting into trouble. Streets, often without safety-providing sidewalks, lead past houses belonging to people with similar incomes and tastes to more of the same. To make up for their lack of exercise, some of the inhabitants drive to health spas to walk on specially designed walking machines.

For a democracy to work well, people need to communicate with each other, especially with people who have needs and views different than their own. Suburbs, the automobile, and the electronic media have reduced such contact. Shopping malls owned by large corporations and filled with strangers and national chain-stores do not belong to the community, as “Main Street” with shops owned by one’s neighbors did. Most people, for that matter, shop in malls that are outside of the community they live in. The only way to participate in a mall is to spend.

Technorich Cities Are Uneconomical

It costs more to run a business requiring a parking lot with a brightly lit sign than one where a lettered front door suffices. Reliance on the automobile and the infrastructure of pavement, sewers, lighting, signage, and policing needed to support it is expensive. In addition, much time is wasted moving people and goods about. This dependence siphons money out of local economies to pay for fuel, parts, and the vehicles themselves. In calculating the cost of cities, the health risks, damage to people and goods resulting from pollution and traffic accidents, and social problems arising from abandoning the poor in central cities and from the boredom in the suburbs should not be ignored.

Technorich Cities Are Vulnerable

In the United States our euphoria based on a long period of prosperity, economic growth, and developing new technologies has lulled us into ignoring lessons of the past and our increasing dependence on things beyond our control.
Cities need regular supplies of food, materials, and energy from remote locations. If their supplies of clean water, energy, and medicine are interupted, epidemics can start and spread rapidly. Without energy, water cannot be pumped, waste cannot be removed, people are immobile, food and medical supplies cannot be transported and communication systems do not work. In high-rise buildings, electricity is needed to operate elevators, provide light, pump water to upper floors, remove waste, heat, cool, and supply fresh air to rooms with inoperable windows. In the suburbs, electricity is essential to run furnaces, pumps, and refrigerators. Gasoline is needed to go almost anyplace, to obtain food, and bring food to markets.

L.F. Ivanhoe, geologist, geophysicist, engineer, oceanographer, and sponsor and coordinator of the M. King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies, predicts that world demand will likely catch up with crude oil supply around the year 2010, with sharp increases in retail prices.ii Unless some yet unknown technology comes to the rescue, if Mr. Ivanhoe is right, we in technorich cities are in for a terrible shock around 2010 AD. If his estimate of when this event will occur is too early, the shock will come later, but the consequences will be worse.
A prolonged economic downturn with moderate unemployment could make the affluent lifestyle now prevalent in some countries unaffordable for many people, creating instability. Under such circumstances, societies dependent on energy and other necessities imported from afar will find it difficult to compete economically with those that have small material demands and are not dependent on an infrastructure that is costly to maintain. North American cities’ complex water, energy, communication, information, and transport systems are susceptible to disruption and are easy targets for terrorists. They rely on a dependable supply of intelligent, responsible, trained personnel to run them. As time passes, finding people capable of maintaining increasingly complex systems will become more difficult and the likelihood of breakdowns more likely.

Referring to technorich cities as “developed” is a misnomer. They are in a state of flux, changing more rapidly each day, exploding outwardly, remaking themselves inwardly, and are often eroding at the core. We have no idea what they will be like in fifty years or how they will react under stress. They are poor models to emulate.
Convoluted Feedback systems

Stable dynamic systems, whether they be steam engines or beehives, have feedback loops that maintain equilibrium—the right speed or population. Technorich cities have feedback mechanisms, but they are incomplete and may actually promote instability.

While many benefits of these cities are obvious to their citizens, many of their costs are not. Consequently, decisions are often made without considering the cost. Sometimes important choices are made by people with political or economic power who base decisions on what is good for them, disregarding negative effects on less influential people. Those who live in other places, future generations, and the planet itself have no say at all. Without their input, these cities are pursuing a dangerous path.

The automobile presents a similar situation. While driving may benefit drivers and passengers, everyone else and nature are hurt but have little influence over their use. But even for their owners the choice of whether to drive is not a balanced one. Once the car and its insurance are paid for, it is relatively inexpensive to operate, it seems to be almost free. Many of its costs, such as roads and caring for those permanently injured by it, may be paid for by property taxes. The automobile has established a positive feedback loop for itself. The more of them there are, the more they change our cities and the more difficult it is to get along without one.
These harmful feedback loops are strengthened by how we who live in these affluent cities view reality. In our minds, our artificial environment is more real to us than the soils, waters, and atmosphere that support our life. We see food as coming from supermarkets in plastic packages instead of from the soil. Airplanes and automobiles make Florida’s beaches and Disneyland more familiar to us than the countryside around our cities. Television makes us more familiar with the names of soaps, beers, and breakfast foods than the plants in our gardens. We feel freed from the constraints and discomforts of nature, to the necessity of enduring hot, humid days, for example. Consequently, our concept of how we and our urban environment fit into nature is illusionary. By our demands and lack of understanding, we inadvertently do great harm to nature.

We Fix Symptoms, Not Causes

Cities have many complex social and economic problems, and governments make many detailed studies of them. These studies normally approach things as phenomena having limited relationships to other things. They then try to solve these difficulties by fixing their symptoms. To relieve traffic, we widen roads or build more of them. To reduce pollution and save petroleum, we require manufacturers to build more efficient cars with pollution reducing (but fuel consuming) catalytic converters and encourage people to use public transit. To encourage “desirable” uncongested growth, municipalities require homes, factories, and shopping centers to be placed on large lots. This necessitates moving people and goods over greater distances—increasing the amount of traffic on roads.
Rarely do we see a city’s problems as parts of an integrated whole interacting with all aspects of its inhabitants’ lives and the biosphere. We would do well to begin solving problems by standing back not ignoring, but looking beyond detailed data, and like the little boy who noted that the emperor was naked, seeing cities in a very simple way and considering what they basically are.

Macro View Needed

We should see a city for what it is, a collection of connected places. The places contain people, activities, goods, and what they need such as buildings, water, clean air, and information. The connections are means for moving people, goods, energy, and information. By viewing cities holistically, we will discover how to achieve our goals in ways that work well for people and are also efficient, economical, and much more compatible with nature.
We should not regard transportation as a means to move as many cars as possible from point A to point B, but rather as a connecting structure—transferring people and goods from one function to another. Distance and means then become irrelevant. What matters is getting to work, to shopping, or a secure place to play, quickly, comfortably, safely, and economically; and moving goods unobtrusively at minimum cost. By locating places people want to go as near to each other as possible, and where this cannot be done, arranging them so that they have easy access to good public transportation, the automobile is no longer a necessity. By using transportation routes as a structure to place functions along, rather than as a repair tool for existing problems, a very different form of city with less traffic, pollution, noise, and wasted energy will emerge.

Status and the ease of division and salability of land should not determine lot shapes and sizes. Equal or even better access to light and air, privacy, and improved aesthetics can be provided on much smaller parcels than those on the edges of technorich cities . We can save energy and materials by reducing the building surface these cities present to the weather, and by proper orientation, gain much energy from the sun.

People living in pedestrian-oriented communities strung along a rapid transit route would have better access to each other, their jobs, and needs than people in similar size technorich cities have today. The land beyond these communities, within easy walking distance of everyone, could provide locally grown food, accept treated organic wastes, and provide recreation. Solving problems in an integrated way enables the solution of one problem to contribute to the solution of others, not to the creation of others as is now so often the case. Actually, almost all of our human-made problems today are the results of past efforts to better our lives.

Cities Follow Natural Laws

Cities are governed by natural laws like those of physics, chemistry, and biology. Some of their features can be described by mathematical equations. The maxims of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics, by acting through us, also affect what cities are and how they work as well. All of these factors interact with each other and cannot be considered alone. Cities are systems made up of interacting subsystems and are themselves subsystems of the world about them.

Although new on Earth, cities are governed by the laws of evolution and ecology just like every thing else. Ants, bees and beavers have evolved community structures that have found stable places in nature. Many indigenous peoples have done the same. What is different about our cities is that they have not been around long enough to receive significant feedback from nature. To avoid evolution’s and ecology’s unpleasant ways of eliminating misfits, we must foresee the dangers we are creating, and alleviate them before we suffer the consequences.

What is possible & Fair

We really have not considered what level of damage to most of the world’s people, future generations, and our planet is fair and an acceptable cost for the way we build and live in our cities. This is an ethical question that goes beyond the scope of this article. However, we can look at some of its implications.

We really do not know how much abuse our planet can take and still provide a viable environment for people. Nor do we know how long the world’s present population and levels of consumption and pollution can be sustained. It is clear our environment has deteriorated from that of twenty-five years ago and it is continuing to do so. High as it already is, the living standard of the people in technorich cities continues to grow. And the swelling population of the rest of the world would like to catch up. We are not all going to get what we want, nor be able to sustain what we have.

It is not easy to ask people to reduce their standard of living, nor is it fair to expect others to forgo what people in the technorich cities enjoy. But for everyone to pursue their goals of an ever higher standard of living would be certain disaster for our planet, future generations, and in time, even for some of us alive today.
Without confronting difficult ethical questions, there are several things that can help. We can find more efficient ways to achieve our goals. I have suggested how that we can do that by restructuring our cities. We should also examine what really contributes to human happiness and fulfillment. My observations of people as a child during the depression, when I was in the Navy, and in less affluent parts of the world, is that, if one is healthy, free, not deprived of necessities, and has challenging tasks to do, additional possessions do not increase one’s happiness. I think most people know this, but do not live accordingly. We need to stress this point in education. While we cannot directly measure happiness, several suggestions have been made which would bring us closer to it.

In its Human Development Report 1990, the United Nations Development Program proposed establishing a “human development index” combining gross national product (GNP) per capita with life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, and purchasing power which could be used to measure the economic well‑being of a country. Economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb have gone further. They developed an “Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare.”iii It incorporates a wide range of factors: air and water pollution, cropland losses, income inequality, and the total costs related to automobile use. Economists could do the world a great service by moving in this direction.

Peter Seidel
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ABSTRACT: Affluent cities in developed nations impose a rapidly increasing burden on the earth that cannot be sustained. Yet people elsewhere desire to copy many of these cities’ features. Cities do offer benefits. However, nature, those who live in them, those who live elsewhere, and future generations pay a high price for the earth’s affluent cities. These costs are discussed. Inhabitants derive most of the benefits from wealthy cities and make the decisions involving them. Nature and most of those who bear the burden are powerless. This is dangerous. To do better, we must look at cities in new ways and deal with them as systems that are part of the world system. In doing so, we need to protect nature and divide the planet’s resources more equitably between all people, including future generations.
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Today we are changing the face of our planet at an explosive rate. Our rapidly expanding urban areas, particularly affluent ones in “developed nations,” and how people live in them play an important role in this. These cities have an impact that reach around the world. Their high levels of consumption and waste affect people far beyond their borders, future generations, and the earth itself. Many people see features of these cities as models to emulate. And the inevitable forces of the modern world drive other cities to adopt many of their characteristics. We would be wise to examine the benefits offered by these urban areas and compare them with their costs.

North American metropolitan areas, which are surrounded by reasonably priced farm land and have roots reaching back into the mid-nineteenth century or before, are good models to examine. They are technically advanced, wealthy, and have plenty of room to grow. They also have districts which predate modern transportation that present problems similar to those many other cities are experiencing. I shall call these conurbations “technorich cities.”

Cities have always attracted people because they provide a wide variety of jobs, educational opportunities, social contacts, cultural experiences, entertainment, and shopping. They offer businesses skilled employees, easily procured materials, energy, and access to markets. Vital, energetic cities are economic and cultural assets to regions, nations, and sometimes the world.

In technorich cities streetcars (and later buses), rapid transit, and commuter railroads enabled people to escape congested central urban areas and move to low density suburbs or nearby communities. This caused cities to expand along these routes. Later, automobiles, trucks, and electronic communication permitted people, businesses, and institutions to move anywhere people were willing to commute. This spurred cities to expand over nearby countryside. Safe water distribution systems (sometimes bringing water from hundreds of miles away) and sanitation systems made it practical and safe for large numbers of people to live in urban areas.

Modern modes of transportation and communication have put these cities in close contact with both the region right around them and remote places on the earth. This has enabled them to become large, wealthy, and to provide a high standard of living to their inhabitants. However, there are costs related to the physical aspects of these cities—some obvious, some not. They are paid not only by those who live in them, but also by those who do not, and by nature.

Technorich Cities Are Bad for Nature

The energetic technorich city is ever greedy for more land and is a high metabolizer, consuming large amounts of energy and raw materials from which it produces products and services. In doing so, following the laws of physics, it produces waste materials in the form of pollution, and waste energy in the form of heat.

According to the Farm Land Trust, the United States lost four million acres of prime farm land to urbanization between 1982 and 1992.iv As American population grows, its food surplus will disappear and, if present trends continue, will neither be available for export nor to meet America’s own needs. Considering the deterioration of the earth’s soils, for countries grown dependent on American exports, this will be tragic.

Land that once supported oxygen producing, water retaining vegetation has been stripped of topsoil, built upon, paved, or replaced with thin layers of sod. Now instead of replenishing aquifers, water is quickly shed into waterways, increasing the danger of flooding, and causing water levels to be low in streams, lakes, and reservoirs when moisture is needed during dry seasons. Chemicals used on pavement and lawns pollute runoff. Pavement absorbs radiation from the sun and retains heat, significantly increasing local temperature in cities. This raises the demand for air-conditioning—which produces still more heat. Streets and parking lots also require energy to produce, maintain, and illuminate them. Still more pavement is needed to carry traffic past parking lots.

Traditional communities obtained food from the surrounding countryside and returned organic waste to it to help maintain its fertility. Now, large cities need more food than can be produced nearby and demand exotic varieties in both summer and winter. To meet these demands, in the United States large food distribution companies desiring a steady, year-round supply of fruits and vegetables buy from producers thousands of miles away. Meat, poultry and eggs are increasingly obtained from agribusinesses that concentrate animals and poultry in huge complexes. This makes it uneconomical to return organic wastes to the soil. Instead, precious nutrients are deposited in landfills or find their way into waterways and aquifers which they pollute.

Chemicals are used to replace nutrients necessary to produce marketable crops, but there are few incentives to replace others that are needed for human health. Soils deprived of humus and compacted by heavy farming equipment deteriorate over time. To maximize profits, farms in many distant producing areas grow a single crop, year after year. This requires the administration of ever-increasing levels of polluting fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. For a while this is profitable, but in essence, it is mining the soil of its productivity.

This practice is not limited to affluent nations. To profit from the wants of technorich cities , land in poor countries that was once farmed by peasants to feed themselves has been accumulated by rich landowners to produce cash crops for export. These landowners grow richer while many former peasants are left without work and little to eat. Sometimes the well-to-do in poor countries gain at the expense of the citizenry and environment by accepting garbage and hazardous waste from wealthy cities.

By causing us to reshape and expand our cities, the automobile has made itself indispensable. We cannot buy food, get to our job, see a doctor, or visit friends without one. Autos are a drug we have been lured into taking and now cannot get along without. Ordinary trips, which once consumed no more than human energy, now require the utilization of huge quantities of petroleum, steel, and concrete.

In the United States, people used to walk to grocery stores which had offices or apartments above them. Today, these same facilities, separated from each other and with all necessary parking, may cover from ten to fifty times as much land. Additional streets covering more land are needed to bring people to them. Over the years grocery stores have been replaced by supermarkets of ever larger size that continue to become fewer and more remote. We have no choice but to drive farther and farther to shop for food and other necessities.

This works well for businesses which save on labor costs and fuel by delivering to a few major locations. However, the total amount of time spent and miles driven by shoppers to reach these large stores dwarfs the merchants’ savings. The store owners are very aware of their costs, but the shoppers largely ignore theirs. Municipalities do no better. They react by building the roads needed to handle the additional traffic but do nothing to reduce it. In fact, zoning regulations, tax structures, lending practices, and public concepts of what is desirable dictate the consolidation of functions, such as retail outlets, at a low densities.

Bad for People, Communities, and Democracy

Without doubt automobiles are attractive—to those who are in them. They take us where we want to go, when we want to go, in comfort and privacy. When there are few of them, they get us to our destination quickly, can be fun to drive, and make us feel important. However they are a menace to everyone else, are destructive to the urban and natural environment, mutilate and kill millions of people and countless animals, consume irreplaceable resources, and pollute. And when there are many automobiles, they make urban life close to unbearable as in Los Angeles and Bangkok.
In the United States the automobile offers those who wish to, and can afford to, the potential to escape the social and economic problems, noise, pollution, and congestion (largely caused by motor vehicles) in central cities by moving out to independent legal entities called suburbs. This way affluent people can ensure that their property taxes will be used to benefit themselves and not be used to support services such as city public schools, parks, libraries, and social services. Undesirable land uses, such as housing for low income people and many types of businesses, can be kept out—although inoffensive businesses that pay high taxes may be actively solicited. This creates what may now have become a non-ending process of people leaving problems, moving away, and erecting new fences (sometimes physical ones with guarded gates) around enclaves in order to avoid facing up to communal problems. Nearly all cities in the United States are now collections of self-governing districts trying to disengage themselves from shared responsibility.

The people who escaped central cities also left much that was good and created an environment for themselves that is neither city nor country. Modern homogeneous suburbs isolate homemakers, children, the aged, and the handicapped. They lack the stimulation and educational experiences for children that farms, small towns, and older neighborhoods provide. Once children could watch their father at his trade, observe the blacksmith and the weaver, visit school friends, and go to the public library and city museum on their own. Lacking these possibilities , they may be left with activities such as passively watching television or getting into trouble. Streets, often without safety-providing sidewalks, lead past houses belonging to people with similar incomes and tastes to more of the same. To make up for their lack of exercise, some of the inhabitants drive to health spas to walk on specially designed walking machines.

For a democracy to work well, people need to communicate with each other, especially with people who have needs and views different than their own. Suburbs, the automobile, and the electronic media have reduced such contact. Shopping malls owned by large corporations and filled with strangers and national chain-stores do not belong to the community, as “Main Street” with shops owned by one’s neighbors did. Most people, for that matter, shop in malls that are outside of the community they live in. The only way to participate in a mall is to spend.

Technorich Cities Are Uneconomical

It costs more to run a business requiring a parking lot with a brightly lit sign than one where a lettered front door suffices. Reliance on the automobile and the infrastructure of pavement, sewers, lighting, signage, and policing needed to support it is expensive. In addition, much time is wasted moving people and goods about. This dependence siphons money out of local economies to pay for fuel, parts, and the vehicles themselves. In calculating the cost of cities, the health risks, damage to people and goods resulting from pollution and traffic accidents, and social problems arising from abandoning the poor in central cities and from the boredom in the suburbs should not be ignored.

Technorich Cities Are Vulnerable

In the United States our euphoria based on a long period of prosperity, economic growth, and developing new technologies has lulled us into ignoring lessons of the past and our increasing dependence on things beyond our control.

Cities need regular supplies of food, materials, and energy from remote locations. If their supplies of clean water, energy, and medicine are interupted, epidemics can start and spread rapidly. Without energy, water cannot be pumped, waste cannot be removed, people are immobile, food and medical supplies cannot be transported and communication systems do not work. In high-rise buildings, electricity is needed to operate elevators, provide light, pump water to upper floors, remove waste, heat, cool, and supply fresh air to rooms with inoperable windows. In the suburbs, electricity is essential to run furnaces, pumps, and refrigerators. Gasoline is needed to go almost anyplace, to obtain food, and bring food to markets.

L.F. Ivanhoe, geologist, geophysicist, engineer, oceanographer, and sponsor and coordinator of the M. King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies, predicts that world demand will likely catch up with crude oil supply around the year 2010, with sharp increases in retail prices.v Unless some yet unknown technology comes to the rescue, if Mr. Ivanhoe is right, we in technorich cities are in for a terrible shock around 2010 AD. If his estimate of when this event will occur is too early, the shock will come later, but the consequences will be worse.
A prolonged economic downturn with moderate unemployment could make the affluent lifestyle now prevalent in some countries unaffordable for many people, creating instability. Under such circumstances, societies dependent on energy and other necessities imported from afar will find it difficult to compete economically with those that have small material demands and are not dependent on an infrastructure that is costly to maintain. North American cities’ complex water, energy, communication, information, and transport systems are susceptible to disruption and are easy targets for terrorists. They rely on a dependable supply of intelligent, responsible, trained personnel to run them. As time passes, finding people capable of maintaining increasingly complex systems will become more difficult and the likelihood of breakdowns more likely.

Referring to technorich cities as “developed” is a misnomer. They are in a state of flux, changing more rapidly each day, exploding outwardly, remaking themselves inwardly, and are often eroding at the core. We have no idea what they will be like in fifty years or how they will react under stress. They are poor models to emulate.
Convoluted Feedback systems

Stable dynamic systems, whether they be steam engines or beehives, have feedback loops that maintain equilibrium—the right speed or population. Technorich cities have feedback mechanisms, but they are incomplete and may actually promote instability.

While many benefits of these cities are obvious to their citizens, many of their costs are not. Consequently, decisions are often made without considering the cost. Sometimes important choices are made by people with political or economic power who base decisions on what is good for them, disregarding negative effects on less influential people. Those who live in other places, future generations, and the planet itself have no say at all. Without their input, these cities are pursuing a dangerous path.

The automobile presents a similar situation. While driving may benefit drivers and passengers, everyone else and nature are hurt but have little influence over their use. But even for their owners the choice of whether to drive is not a balanced one. Once the car and its insurance are paid for, it is relatively inexpensive to operate, it seems to be almost free. Many of its costs, such as roads and caring for those permanently injured by it, may be paid for by property taxes. The automobile has established a positive feedback loop for itself. The more of them there are, the more they change our cities and the more difficult it is to get along without one.

These harmful feedback loops are strengthened by how we who live in these affluent cities view reality. In our minds, our artificial environment is more real to us than the soils, waters, and atmosphere that support our life. We see food as coming from supermarkets in plastic packages instead of from the soil. Airplanes and automobiles make Florida’s beaches and Disneyland more familiar to us than the countryside around our cities. Television makes us more familiar with the names of soaps, beers, and breakfast foods than the plants in our gardens. We feel freed from the constraints and discomforts of nature, to the necessity of enduring hot, humid days, for example. Consequently, our concept of how we and our urban environment fit into nature is illusionary. By our demands and lack of understanding, we inadvertently do great harm to nature.

We Fix Symptoms, Not Causes

Cities have many complex social and economic problems, and governments make many detailed studies of them. These studies normally approach things as phenomena having limited relationships to other things. They then try to solve these difficulties by fixing their symptoms. To relieve traffic, we widen roads or build more of them. To reduce pollution and save petroleum, we require manufacturers to build more efficient cars with pollution reducing (but fuel consuming) catalytic converters and encourage people to use public transit. To encourage “desirable” uncongested growth, municipalities require homes, factories, and shopping centers to be placed on large lots. This necessitates moving people and goods over greater distances—increasing the amount of traffic on roads.
Rarely do we see a city’s problems as parts of an integrated whole interacting with all aspects of its inhabitants’ lives and the biosphere. We would do well to begin solving problems by standing back not ignoring, but looking beyond detailed data, and like the little boy who noted that the emperor was naked, seeing cities in a very simple way and considering what they basically are.

Macro View Needed

We should see a city for what it is, a collection of connected places. The places contain people, activities, goods, and what they need such as buildings, water, clean air, and information. The connections are means for moving people, goods, energy, and information. By viewing cities holistically, we will discover how to achieve our goals in ways that work well for people and are also efficient, economical, and much more compatible with nature.

We should not regard transportation as a means to move as many cars as possible from point A to point B, but rather as a connecting structure—transferring people and goods from one function to another. Distance and means then become irrelevant. What matters is getting to work, to shopping, or a secure place to play, quickly, comfortably, safely, and economically; and moving goods unobtrusively at minimum cost. By locating places people want to go as near to each other as possible, and where this cannot be done, arranging them so that they have easy access to good public transportation, the automobile is no longer a necessity. By using transportation routes as a structure to place functions along, rather than as a repair tool for existing problems, a very different form of city with less traffic, pollution, noise, and wasted energy will emerge.

Status and the ease of division and salability of land should not determine lot shapes and sizes. Equal or even better access to light and air, privacy, and improved aesthetics can be provided on much smaller parcels than those on the edges of technorich cities . We can save energy and materials by reducing the building surface these cities present to the weather, and by proper orientation, gain much energy from the sun.

People living in pedestrian-oriented communities strung along a rapid transit route would have better access to each other, their jobs, and needs than people in similar size technorich cities have today. The land beyond these communities, within easy walking distance of everyone, could provide locally grown food, accept treated organic wastes, and provide recreation. Solving problems in an integrated way enables the solution of one problem to contribute to the solution of others, not to the creation of others as is now so often the case. Actually, almost all of our human-made problems today are the results of past efforts to better our lives.

Cities Follow Natural Laws

Cities are governed by natural laws like those of physics, chemistry, and biology. Some of their features can be described by mathematical equations. The maxims of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics, by acting through us, also affect what cities are and how they work as well. All of these factors interact with each other and cannot be considered alone. Cities are systems made up of interacting subsystems and are themselves subsystems of the world about them.

Although new on Earth, cities are governed by the laws of evolution and ecology just like every thing else. Ants, bees and beavers have evolved community structures that have found stable places in nature. Many indigenous peoples have done the same. What is different about our cities is that they have not been around long enough to receive significant feedback from nature. To avoid evolution’s and ecology’s unpleasant ways of eliminating misfits, we must foresee the dangers we are creating, and alleviate them before we suffer the consequences.

What is possible & Fair

We really have not considered what level of damage to most of the world’s people, future generations, and our planet is fair and an acceptable cost for the way we build and live in our cities. This is an ethical question that goes beyond the scope of this article. However, we can look at some of its implications.

We really do not know how much abuse our planet can take and still provide a viable environment for people. Nor do we know how long the world’s present population and levels of consumption and pollution can be sustained. It is clear our environment has deteriorated from that of twenty-five years ago and it is continuing to do so. High as it already is, the living standard of the people in technorich cities continues to grow. And the swelling population of the rest of the world would like to catch up. We are not all going to get what we want, nor be able to sustain what we have.

It is not easy to ask people to reduce their standard of living, nor is it fair to expect others to forgo what people in the technorich cities enjoy. But for everyone to pursue their goals of an ever higher standard of living would be certain disaster for our planet, future generations, and in time, even for some of us alive today.

Without confronting difficult ethical questions, there are several things that can help. We can find more efficient ways to achieve our goals. I have suggested how that we can do that by restructuring our cities. We should also examine what really contributes to human happiness and fulfillment. My observations of people as a child during the depression, when I was in the Navy, and in less affluent parts of the world, is that, if one is healthy, free, not deprived of necessities, and has challenging tasks to do, additional possessions do not increase one’s happiness. I think most people know this, but do not live accordingly. We need to stress this point in education. While we cannot directly measure happiness, several suggestions have been made which would bring us closer to it.

In its Human Development Report 1990, the United Nations Development Program proposed establishing a “human development index” combining gross national product (GNP) per capita with life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, and purchasing power which could be used to measure the economic well‑being of a country. Economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb have gone further. They developed an “Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare.”vi It incorporates a wide range of factors: air and water pollution, cropland losses, income inequality, and the total costs related to automobile use. Economists could do the world a great service by moving in this direction.