From: Issue 34 Categories: Government

The Metabolic Metropolis

8 February, 2011

Big cities may reverse climate change

Written by Sarah Barmak

If the concept of a sustainable city sounds like a paradox, that’s because it is, according to physicist Geoffrey West.

Ironically, because of their urban “metabolism,” cities require only 85 per cent of the resources necessary to double in size, and they’re more energy efficient than rural communities.

A un-habitat report State of the World's Cities 2010/2011 found that cities’ density and economies of scale provide more benefits to the environment than rural living— and could even reverse the impact of climate change by reducing per capita emissions.

This seems counterintuitive to the agrarian revolutionary who believes a return to rural communities is a solution to climate change. Urban living may increase our problematic reliance on destructive factory farming, but increased worldwide migration to cities is helping curb population growth because there is no need for large families for labour.

“When villagers migrate to the city, their family size drops, on average, by at least one child per family, often below the steady population rate of 2.1 children,” writes Doug Saunders in his recent book, Arrival City. “Without massive rural-to-urban migration, the world’s population would be growing at a far faster pace.”

As more people move to cities to find work, even though their family size shrinks, consumption rears its head. More people means a clamour for more food, energy, and products. According to West, the only way to keep the unsustainable urban machine going is the innovation produced by cities that constantly finds new resources to exploit.

The upshot is if we want to live in a sustainable world, we’ll need bigger cities, and more of them. As a physicist who applied his training to the study of urban environments, West believes we need more megalopolises.

But as we found in the fifth annual Corporate Knights Sustainable Cities ranking, not all cities are created equal.

We studied 28 indicators of sustainability in five categories—ecological integrity, economic security, infrastructure and built environment, governance and empowerment, and social well-being. Seventeen Canadian cities were surveyed, giving us a picture of the country’s urban sustainability.

Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria won top honours in our Big, Medium, and Small city categories respectively. But many other cities boasted environmental programs that made them stand out, such as Edmonton and Whistler. While Whistler is not included in our ranking, the city deserves honourable mention for promising initiatives (see pg. 26).

Evaluating the complex 21st-century city is never easy. This is something University of Toronto civil engineering professor Christopher Kennedy knows all too well. Kennedy led a groundbreaking ranking of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of ten global cities in 2009 called Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Cities. To help account for a city’s use of energy, Kennedy employs the idea of its urban metabolism, a framework that sees the modern metropolis as a kind of organism or ecosystem with flows of water, nutrients, and waste.

Gathering data from world municipalities, which are only beginning to request figures from energy companies, turned out to be a big challenge, he says. There are so many factors involved that it would be hard for anyone to simply say, “Hey, my city is better.”

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