Current world trends indicate that increasingly the health of our Earth and its inhabitants are inextricably tied to the future of our urban centers. According to the United Nations, the year 2005 marked the first time in our planet’s history that over half of the entire human population lived in cities. In western countries, this percentage is even higher, with 80 percent of the population living in urban areas. In addition, these trends of urbanization are on the rise, particularly in developing countries. Between 1990 and 1995, 263 million people were added to cities in developing countries. This is equivalent to the formation of a new Los Angeles or Shanghai every three months.
With such growth trends occurring in our urban settlements, it is disconcerting to consider the disproportionate impact that cities now have on our planet. Cities today take up only two percent of the world’s surface, yet they consume 75 percent of its resources. Such trends are unsustainable, as urban areas cannot unilaterally continue to grow and support these patterns of consumption. The city of London, for instance, requires 58 times the land of its city to supply its residents with food and timber. To supply everyone in the world in the same way would require at least three more Earths.
Given these trends, it is easy for environmentalists to fall into the Jeffersonian trap of viewing large urban cities as “pestilential” to the health of our people and planet. But if we apply a permaculture principle to this situation, we should be looking not at how to “war against this problem” or even “how to solve this problem.” Rather we should be asking ourselves, “How can we turn this problem into the solution?” For in waste, there is potential.
According to Jaime Lerner, the visionary three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, “The city is not the problem, it is the solution.” Looked as such, cities can be seen as centers of immense potential. They are a concentration of human power in relationship to the power of place.
As concentrated centers, cities are in a unique leverage position in the world today. According to journalist Leif Utne, “The modern city is perhaps the most effective unit of social change these days, small enough to marshal social cohesion for getting things done, yet large enough to be an engine of cultural influence on the wider stage.”
It is this leveraged position for influence on the world stage, combined with the concentrated power of human and natural resources, that gives cities such potential today for good or bad, for the destruction or recreation of our environments, for being degenerative or regenerative centers for humanity and the planet. What we need are regenerative cities, cities that reciprocally help to regenerate the land they are a part of and help to build connections to the land in ways that continue to regenerate the cultures of its peoples.
So I leave you with this question, “How can you help your city (or community) to become more regenerative?”