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Reconsidering Cities

I get a lot of emails from people who want to get out of the city. Sometimes the reasons are really good ones – they don’t like cities or the ones they live in, but were drawn there by the promise of salaries and jobs, but now see other options opening up in rural areas or small towns. Maybe they always dreamed of land and space to be self-sufficient, or maybe it was a new dream – but now they want to explore it. Maybe they want lower cost of living and stronger community ties and think a rural small town is the way to get it. Maybe they want cleaner air and more green spaces, or to go home to a place they loved. Maybe they believed the idea that it was too hard to grow your own and make your own, but they’ve stopped believing this. To which I say - great!

But not all the people I hear from have these reasons. Sometimes people think they should get out of the city because they’ve been told they have to, or they’ve seen too many apocalyptic movies. Sometimes people read about peak oil and climate change and their first reaction is “I’ve got to get out of the city” - but their family is there, and their home and their work. Sometimes people really like cities, and don’t want to leave, but feel like they have to to be safe. Sometimes what is burgeoning under the surface is a real fear of crime, and sometimes it is a nebulous fear of the alien and strange. And sometimes there’s a racist and classist element to this – a fear of “them” who will “riot.” Sometimes there are concerns that cities are unadaptable – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. Sometimes people just haven’t given much thought to what is possible in the city and they don’t realize that many of their dreams might be fulfillable in the city.

We moved here to the country a few months before 9/11, and I can’t count the number of people who called up and said “you have the right idea, get out of the cities!” In vain did we protest that we hadn’t left Lowell and Boston to escape terrorism, nameless violence and scary people but because we wanted to grow things and raise animals. I don’t blame folks who instinctively reacted that way, but I do think that if we’re leaving the cities, we should go for the right reasons – because we love the country, not because we fear the city. Moreover, I feel that many cities have a future – and a rich and complicated and probably quite wonderful (and difficult) ones. Nor is it self-evident to me that the countryside will always be better off than the city. So let’s talk about why people should revisit the idea of cities.

I think it is important also to distinguish between several kinds of cities. Just as I’ve written before that there are suburbs and suburbs, there are cities and cities. There are cities I think have little or no future in the face of climate change and energy depletion, and ones I think have quite a bright future. How do you know which kind of city yours is? Well, there are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Was this a major city before 1900? This is an important question if you are interested in your city’s future. As a general rule, the best way to evaluate a city’s long term future in the face of depletion and the ability to produce less carbon is to ask “Back when we used less energy, did people want to live here? If so, why? If not, why not?” If, for example, your city is a major port city, or connected by waterway to a major port city, your city probably has a future. The age of water transport is hardly over – it is just beginning again, and ports will be needed. If your city was a mill city with lots of hydropower – that’s another good sign. Or a major rail hub – we know that rail is much more efficient than private cars. On the other hand, if not very many people lived there until air conditioning or until we stole water from somewhere else, that might not be so good.

2. What are the best projections for its future in climate change? The exception to the rule that you should use the past to predict the future is climate change. If your city is expected to be underwater and subject to increasingly violent storm surges, you might not want to stay – even if you imagine you won’t be alive for the worst consequences, you might consider asking yourself “When I’m 70, will I want to evacuate every hurricane season?” Or if increasing heatwaves and drought are the projection, you should honestly ask whether you are prepared to deal with them. Cities with no good reliable supply of water will probably do very badly indeed.

3. What kind of local food and energy infrastructure have you got? Cities that didn’t develop hugely in the last decades that still have farmland around them will be at an advantage – not an insurmountable ones if they have natural transportation lines, but still, this is a powerful advantage. Smaller cities of 1 million or less may do better than bigger ones – the biggest cities will probably have to get smaller, particularly if they are built up for many miles outside their limits, have a lot of high rises or other major disadvantages. That said, even a big city that has to get smaller will have some particularly well developed people who do very well there

4. Finally, what’s the culture of your city/neighborhood within it? Are you surrounded by immigrants who are growing gardens in every spare inch? Awesome. Are you surrounded by affluent neighbors who don’t like to see undies out on the line? Not so great. Is your city in decline with a high violent crime rate? Not so good. Does your city have an active and powerful community organizing presence that helps keep people safe? Good. Is your municipality actively preparing for the future? Terrific. Are they not helping but not hindering much? Pretty good.

Moreover, the country will have some disadvantages over cities in difficult times – this is almost certain to happen. It is important to be prepared for those difficulties, and many city people aren’t – given that they will be facing challenges in either place, it may be better to face challenges that are more familiar, in a place where you have ties, than to try and face totally unfamiliar ones in a new place.

What are the disadvantages of the countryside? Here are a few:

1. Fewer jobs, more poverty, at least at first. While in the longer term, rural areas may do better, in early transitional periods, the odds are that they will do worse, because they have fewer jobs to begin with. In an economic crisis, many people in rural areas become very poor and areas become severely depressed. If you are thinking that we will have an instant apocalypse where everyone moves out to the countryside looking for food, you probably should give some thought to a slow grind, where there’s plenty of food but no money to buy it.

2. Shortages of goods and higher prices for things not made locally. Many rural areas have few stores and are at thee nd of shipping lines. If gas gets expensive or resources get constrained, outer perimeter stores will be serviced last, and at higher cost. Few rural dwellers make everything they use or even grow all their own food – it may cost you a lot more to get things and you may be the first to see shortages.

3. Tight knit and conservative communities can be alienating to people who are different or simply outsiders. While I know, for example, many gay and lesbian people living in rural areas, I know others who were driven out by small mindedness and hostility. Plenty of people move out our way and complain that if you aren’t related to someone, there’s no social life, and it is hard to integrate. The reality is you may be an outsider for a long time.

4. It can be far away from family and friends if they are tied to the city. Life in the country also requires that you live differently – fewer formal activities for the kids, more just playing, maybe multiple sources of part time income instead of one steady job.

5. Lack of services – as economic consequences get greater, small towns with small tax bases either need to raise taxes (a tough sell) or they need to cut services. When oil prices spiked in 2008 schools cut back to 4 days a week, got rid of staff, plowing was cut back, garbage collection abandoned and town courts closed. The consequences are worse in the city when services do shut down because of population density, but cities are less likely to get hit as early.

Now I love the country, and I love my life, but it would be wrong to imply that everyone should live here. In fact, everyone shouldn’t – first of all, there’s not enough land in the world for everyone to live at the population density that I do. Some people have to – otherwise we wouldn’t have farms, but our present population means that some people also have to live in apartments and dense housing so that there’s farmland left. Moreover, unlike some rural folk, I don’t dislike cities – I lived in them for much of my life, and I’m fond of them. If I could bring my livestock back to the city, heck, I might consider it ;-) .

Plus, there are some real advantages to living sustainably in the city – some things are a lot easier. These include transportation, getting to shopping, scavenging stuff, building diverse communities, meeting cultural needs for people who are different in some way or need to be close to religious or ethnic communities, more bodies to keep you warm, access to trade goods, educational opportunities and others. Cities have existed for a very, very long time, and they aren’t going to go away. Trade has been happening for centuries, and climate change is not going to make Ottumwa, Iowa a center of international trade anytime soon.

Moreover, some cities may thrive with the resumption of local manufacturing – when oil prices spiked in 2008, overwhelmingly the costs of globalization began to be realized. When shipping costs rise, we will have incentive to bring manufacturing back in many areas. For people who don’t want to be farmers, meeting new needs for efficient heating, garden tools, sturdy clothing, etc… will be important work. Even Aaron Newton and I never did suggest that everyone was going to be a farmer ;-) .

Sometimes people email me saying that they desperately need to get out of the city because they want to grow a garden, because they need to get their hands into dirt. But this, I think, is the deepest misconception created by energy depletion and climate change – that there’s only dirt in the country, or that it only “counts” when there’s a lot of it. But the reality, as I say as often as I can think of, is that there’s dirt under everyone’s feet. It may be hard to find – sometimes you have to go look at community gardens or borrow a neighbor’s yard or do so guerilla gardening. But we need people to grow food most of all where people live now.

Because reducing energy and shipping costs is essential, we need gardeners in the city and small livestock in the city as much as we need farmers in the countryside. In 1943, for example, the city of Baltimore had more than 14,000 community gardens, producing enough food to meet all the produce needs of the city. In 1944, all the victory gardens in the US produced the same amount of produce as all the vegetable farms in the US put together. In the 19th century, urban Paris was exporting food from 3600 acres of intensively farmed land that produce more vegetables than the city could consume.

Underestimating the power of urban agriculture is one of the deepest flaws in reasoning. Most nations of the global south produce substantial portions of meat and vegetables within city limits – Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, both produce more than 20% of their meat and vegetables within the city limits. In 2002 with more than 6 million people, Hong Kong was producing 33% of their produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and 20% of the farmed fish eaten in the city limits, much the animale being rased on 160,000 tons annually of food waste that was recycled into meat and eggs. Will cities grow all their own food? No, but they don’t necessarily have to. A substantial portion can be enough, as long as they also build ties to surrounding rural areas.

What about people’s fears about crime and violence? Are they misplaced? No, they aren’t – they are very real. But it is important to keep them in perspective – often we’re so terrified of crime that we give it a bigger place in our lives psychologically than it deserves. There are some cities that have undergone major crises and become violent, unliveable places but most often because of war. In many other places, the countryside has also experience violence – violence that was worse because of isolation from neighbors.

My bet is that if you could live in the worst neighborhood in your city right now then you would be ok. Now many of us wouldn’t choose to do that – but we should remember that the crime we’re facing in the cities is probably on the same order of the crime and difficulty that we expect the poor to endure in our cities right now. Right now there are people operating in your city without utilities – either squatters or people who have been shut off for non-payment. Right now there are people who are facing high crime rates, who can’t get police protection or who have reasons to be afraid of the police. Right now there are people who are facing rising infant mortality, lack of access to health care and good food.

What’s likely to happen in the longer term is that many of us are likely to live in cities much as the poor live in them now. But at the same time, the same strategies that have helped poor urban dwellers make a decent life for themselves are available to us – organize, organize, organize. That is, when the neighborhood isn’t safe and the cops aren’t responsive, get together and talk to the police and the people who police the police. Organize watches. Get the dealers out. Make spaces that are safe. Enlist help from the community to clean things up and make things safer. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it works.

When there’s no good local food infrastructure, people start it. When there’s no clinic, people agitate for one, or start one themselves. The beauty of cities is the tremendous people power that cities have – the capacity to organize, resist and make safe.

There are things about large, dense cities that are potentially quite dangerous. The things that worry me most are fire infrastructure in the case of disasters, water contamination and disease outbreaks due to water contamination. These are real issues. Again, they can be handled by leaving and going someplace less populous – but you do only change one set of problems for another. If your house catches fire while you are trying to keep warm in the city, you could burn down a whole neighborhood, so you need to handle heating safely and collectively. If your house catches fire in the country, nobody else will burn – but no one may show up to put it out, either, if things get tough enough. Managing human wastes in the city is challenging – but in the country you may run into people who are accustomed to just dumping as they like.

Generally speaking, cities require a high degree of cooperation – living successfully in close proximity to others requires that people be accomodating of others. People who can’t do this or don’t want to may want their own space and land. It can be frustrating, particularly when the regulations are inflexible and strictly enforced – getting that livestock into the city will take a lot of advocacy in some cases. And yet, that cooperation is also a gift – it means that the infrastructure of management can be invoked and used in tough times. Rural areas without close ties – and many of the traditional neighborly ties have been set aside as people replace cooperation with fossil fuels – may be tough to work together.

The people who should most seriously consider staying in the city are those with strong community and family ties there. Difficult times may make it impossible to commute back and forth. If you are a member of an ethnic, religious or minority community and that identity is important to you, you may find yourself painfully isolated somewhere away from them. Much of our collective fears about the cities have to do with their diversity – I’m not at all claiming that everyone with worries about cities has a secret fear of non-white folk, but some of them quite explicitly do. Often our fears about cities are fears about race, class and cultures that are alien to us. That doesn’t mean that sometimes our fears aren’t legitimate – but we need to be very careful about identifying which ones are real and which ones aren’t. Moreover, conversations about “them” forget that a lot of us are “thems” of various sorts – and have strong reasons to want to be near our communities.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to go city or country mouse. What concerns me is that people instinctively reject both choices for the wrong reasons. It may well be a good idea for you to leave the city – but maybe not too. What it should be is a rational choice, not one based on an instinctive panic or a set of false assumptions.

If you are going to reconsider the question of the city, here are some books to get you started:

_Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_ by Novella Carpenter. I can’t say enough good things about this book! Carpenter isn’t writing in some affluent neighborhood – she’s farming a slum in Oakland and doing a damned fine job of it.

_The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living_ Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew worked their ideas for reclaiming industrial spaces through permaculture out in Austin, but now they are doing them in Albany, to my delight! This is a wonderful book of practical, low cost tools for real urbanites who want to have a future.

_The Integral Urban House_ by The Farallones Institute – this book is out of print, but still deeply valuable. Published in 1979 by a branch of the Sierra Club, it is _The Encyclopedia of Country Living_ for the urbanite, covering everything from insulation to greywater, mitigating soil contamination to managing wastes of all kinds.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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