Reconsidering Cities

Sharon January 12th, 2010

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. 

Sharon

67 Responses to “Reconsidering Cities”

  1. homebrewlibrarian says:

    I can keenly identify with the issue of the increasing price of goods. While I live in the largest city in Alaska, Anchorage (pop. 280K give or take), we’re still at the end of the road as far as goods are concerned. Today one of my coworkers was perplexed why a package of 10 sponges was now $8. But it’s much, much worse off the road system – and that’s the majority of the state.

    My prediction is that first there will be a gradual abandonment of the most remote places as people, mostly Alaska Natives, will move to the larger cities (probably Fairbanks and Anchorage. Juneau is not connected by roads and all of the southeastern coastal area will face the same problem). Secondly, there will be an increase in out migration from the state mostly of people who do not have family ties here (which would be, um, most everyone else).

    But for those of us who choose to stay… Count me as someone who would prefer to live in a city – and thankful that I live in a not-so-densely populated one. The plus side of access to goods, services, cooperation and employment I totally agree with. I also acknowledge the issue of crime – Saturday night, a police officer was shot multiple times while sitting in his patrol car literally around the corner from where I live. Some of my upstairs neighbors heard the shots. Vandalism and minor theft happen frequently and I’m sure there is a certain amount of drug trafficking around here as well. Folks here are mostly one paycheck away from disaster. My approach to this is to become more familiar and friendly with my neighbors. As far as I’m concerned, the neighborhood will become a ghetto only if we let it.

    As for urban agriculture – if I can grow food on a gravel pad (in raised beds, of course), it can be done pretty much anywhere. Maybe someday we’ll get chickens since the city has recently changed their backyard animal policy to be somewhat more lenient. The part of the yard with dirt is becoming the “orchard” – various berry bushes, rhubarb, strawberries, rosehips – all in less than 1000 sq ft. It’s pretty amazing how intensely planted this small space can be.

    But if I want to get rural, I have a friend with 80 acres of mostly birch forest and a herd of goats. She’s slowly developing that into a homestead so if getting out of the city is necessary, there’s a place to go. I’m having a yurt put up out there this summer so that visitors have a place to stay. She’s experimenting with various types of vegetable beds and we’re trying to see if apple trees can be successfully grown (protecting them from marauding goats and moose is challenging to say the least).

    Nevertheless, my preference is to stay urban. If I need a “country” fix, well, my nails get pretty dirty and I don’t even have to leave the property!

    Kerri in AK

  2. Nettle says:

    I have that stereotypical “move to the country” dream – I want acreage and chickens and goats and stars at night and peepers in the spring. It’s a dream I’m working towards and one that I fully expect to get someday. I went through a period of trying to talk myself out of it, though, because my place in the city makes so much more sense. I don’t need a car; we have a thriving local-food scene and there is a farmer’s market within two blocks of my house twice a week, year-round; there is a big immigrant population in my area, and thus access to lots of inexpensive bulk food like lentils and rice in the ethnic food shops; there is enough green space and trees that between guerilla gardening and scavenging I can provide a whole lot of my own food; my city has all the advantages of location and history you mentioned; I make more money here than I could possibly manage in a rural area, with much lower expenses – really, I’d be nuts to leave. Except for the fact that I have come to hate it here, for a variety of other reasons. But for those with family ties here, or those who don’t miss clean air and mountains like I do, it’s a pretty good place to be in a future of limited resources.

    I wouldn’t even consider moving to a rural area where I didn’t already have roots there. I can’t imagine what it would be like to just drop in to some area without knowing the lay of the land already. My city background and unconvential religion would immediately brand me as an outsider if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m my mom’s daughter – I already know the language up there and the various unspoken standards. If I didn’t, I think I’d just be terribly lonely there.

  3. Ed Straker says:

    Sharon, with all due respect, now and then you really come across as cornucopian, and this is one of them. I asked you once before whether you believed in population overshoot, and you said you did. But with a post like this, it sure sounds like you don’t. I know it’s better to think in a positive light than to wallow in negativity, but when you cite the ability in the past of the cities to feed themselves 50+ years ago you aren’t factoring in either the population bloom since then nor the reduced fossil fuel inputs available in a post-peak society, let alone the disruptions of climate change.

    It’s certainly feasible that no amount of shuffling people around, either to the cities (reurbanization) or to the country (reruralization) will resolve the dilemma of overshoot, aka the deficit in arable land to population. If the future resembles a game of musical chairs, then there will be violent competition for survival. We just don’t know the timing or the severity.

    And where an optimal path exists for the city and the country, what are the odds this path will be taken? Or will society choose to fail? What evidence, besides the boom in the sale of seed packets (probably mostly hybrids, fed with miracle-gro), is there that we are moving in the right direction? Certainly not Copenhagen.

    I know this sounds like a stereotypical doomer rant, so just to be clear about things…

    Do I expect that problem to come to a head tomorrow? No. Within my lifetime? Probably. Certainly within my daughter’s lifetime. Someone who lives in rental apartment who has access to a balcony with some tomatoes in it will be in a far more vulnerable situation regarding food than someone in the country with an acre or more to play with. Sure, the person in the apartment may spend less on utility bills and have more social services, but if you don’t have food, it’s game over.

    Living in the city is an inherently dependent existence. You put your faith in the system to either adapt or die. That is what people are reacting to when they express their desire to get out of dodge. (For instance, I’m living in the Boston area and while it’s a port city, it will also one day be underwater. The much-vaunted MBTA is also seriously in debt.) Whatever the city could do to adapt, even if it were possible to avoid a malthusian die-off, they probably won’t do, out of inertia, ignorance, laziness, or factors outside its control (in the case of baked-in climate-change).

    Maybe some years from now we’ll be able to judge whether, for instance, the Transition Town movement has been able to create the sort of mind-shift required to be more optimistic about adaptation, but right now, I would not begrudge anyone for wanting to get out of dodge.

  4. Anna says:

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s this kind of thoughtfulness that makes me keep coming back to your blog!

    I’m a country mouse because I just can’t live without lots and lots of trees. But I went through a phase where I tried to talk myself out of it because I’m also an environmentalist and I sincerely believe that it would probably be better for the earth if most of us lived in small to medium-sized cities and left the surrounding countryside for the trees (oh, and farmers. :-) I hadn’t thought through all of those additional reasons you gave, but many of them rang true with me.

  5. Aurora says:

    I think this post was written for me! Over the last week I have been trying to work out where I want to be.

    I live in the only island city in the UK, Portsmouth. It’s an island that for the most part lies just 3 m above sea level. It has a population of 188 000 crammed onto 15.5 square miles (that includes a couple of square miles of less dense suburbia and industrial estate). Property prices and rents are currently extortionate (though that still follows for much of the UK) for poor housing stock that at best have a small yard; some are luckier with 60′ x 20′ gardens. The waiting list for an allotment currently stands at over 1500, competing for just 1450 plots as an when they come available.

    I grew up in a smaller (population 5000) seaside town. It had some advantages in that many people knew each other, the highstreet mostly comprised local shops and the houses were not shoeboxes and generally came with acceptable sized gardens. My partner grew up in a larger town of 20,000 people and his experience was similar. I feel (and I don’t mean to cause offence) that more rural village life here will be increasingly hellish if you are not white, straight, conservative and culturally christian. Certainly towns may be the way to go in the UK. Towns are a nice halfway point and I feel they will be more sustainable in the long run.

    I imagine the one game changer here is that the distances between settlements in the UK are much smaller than the US? So the logistics of moving people and goods may be less impactful.

    Thank you for your blogs Sharon. I have been reading for many months and your perspectives and ideas are as valuable across the pond as they are in the States.

  6. All of my family and my husband’s lives in Las Vegas.

    Of all non-sustainable cities, this has to be one of the least sustainable. No one was there before the 1950s except some very hearty Mormons and the people native to that area who were smart enough to spread out and not live conjested in a place with no water and three months out of the year where the temperature doesn’t ever get under 100 degrees.

    We moved to a rural Nevada town which was the only other place we had even remote family (except for my brother in the Coast Guard in Hawaii.) It’s better I think, in many ways. But it’s definitely on the end of the shipping line, being 180 very empty miles from the nearest town. It has a 75-90 day growing period and is under snow nearly 9 months out of the year, too.

    After two years it’s become clear this place isn’t where we should be. But we also don’t feel like we can go back to Vegas. I’m pretty sure that before long our families will have to leave that city, and if we establish somewhere sustainable perhaps they’ll come to us.

    We’re thinking about Seattle. I’m curious what anyone thinks about Seattle in regards to sustainability?

  7. Brad K. says:

    Sharon,

    One statement just leapt out at me – “Right now there are people who are facing rising infant mortality, lack of access to health care and good food. ” It was my understanding that health inspection and sanitation – both garbage and sewer – systems are the processes that most significantly improved both infant and general population mortality rates.

    Of course, like all localization issues, most of us have never been exposed to the need or details of public health and sanitation – or how to compensate when the skilled professionals aren’t available. Whether city or rural, all will need understanding of keeping healthy. Medical care does a lot for accident trauma, and for diseases. But the biggest gains in mortality are not from medicine.

    Ed Straker,

    I didn’t get anything like you are talking about, from Sharon’s post. What I read from Sharon is about individuals weighing their chances, whether to go or to stay in rural or urban setting. I read about making the most of what might be available, and some drawbacks.

    The ability of a population to weather the storm that you cite, I didn’t see that at all. I didn’t see that Sharon posited anyone, anywhere had a much greater chance at surviving – or thriving in – an economic decline.

    Blessed be!

  8. This is a very timely post for me! We live in a medium sized city on the Canadian prairies. I very badly want to move to the country to garden and raise animals so that we can be as self sufficent as possible. (a longing that is worst when the new garden catalogues come out in January ;) ). Crime is not much of an issue for me as we have lived in rather sketchy neighbourhoods for the last 20 years and I have found that once you get to know your neighbours you usually find they are just regular people doing the best they can with what they have been given. When neighbours know each other they begin to watch out for each other and let everyone know about issues of concerns in the area, leading to a safer community.
    I have always just wanted to run a market garden. The reality is, however, that I am 45 with asthma and arthritis( ask me what I said to the doctor who told me the best way to deal with the arthritis was to garden less!) My husband is 50 with cronic back pain (which does not keep him from working, hunting, or fishing, he just does these things with pain.). We have four kids from ages 17-24 three of whom still live at home. My mom who is 68, (and still very active) just moved back from out of province after 14 years so she will have someone to care for her as she gets older and now lives within walking distance of our home.
    The possibility of paying off our city home in the next ten years is high. Country property costs are so high within reasonable commute of the city that the only way we could afford land would be to move at least an hour away, bringing a whole new set of problems not the least of which would be the cost of having five people commuting that far daily! (That kind of defeats the purpose I think. lol)
    We live in a small, fairly well built home on a 60′x120′ lot. There is very little grass left, although the majority of my plantings are ornamental, but last year I began transitioning to more food plantings like berry bushes , vines, and raised beds for annual veggies . The last bit of grass is coming up this spring.
    I do believe we are just going to have to adapt in place. . .
    Thanks for pointing out some of the advantages of city living and for recomending new books to read!

  9. I thought I’d add that I have had my eyes shockingly opened to crime since living in our remote rural town.

    I’m my county’s only drug and alcohol counselor.

    The level of addiction and related crime here is astounding.

    Also, when we lived in Vegas there were like 900 sex offenders in our zip code. There are only 6 or so in our whole town, so that seemed like a good thing. Until we realized that we moved in direction next door to one of them.

    Crime is everywhere. And sometimes, I think, in small towns it can become epidemic and concentrated.

  10. Ed Straker says:

    “The ability of a population to weather the storm that you cite, I didn’t see that at all. I didn’t see that Sharon posited anyone, anywhere had a much greater chance at surviving – or thriving in – an economic decline.”

    You should. We’re not just talking about an economic decline here.

    There is a raging debate between peak-oilers over reurbanization (Kunstler being the prime proponent) and back-to-the-land 2.0 (which is most everyone else).

    It’s one of if not THE main bickering point with peak oilers.

    Ironically, Gaia’s Garden author Toby Hemenway seems to spend all his time online excoriating doomers:

    http://www.patternliteracy.com/apocalypse,not.html

    “If oil were to disappear overnight, we’d be in big trouble. But we have 35 years to gradually descend merely to 1965 levels of consumption. Nineteen-sixty-five wasn’t so bad. Even though world population is greater, energy efficiency increases are greater still. We are an adaptable species—it is our hallmark trait—and the world will change much in 35 years. My bet is on the hairless monkey.”

    Overshoot from a permaculture author is worth nothing more than a shrug. Kunstler’s position is much the same. It’s limits to growth that ends not with a bang but with a whimper. Malthus was wrong, apprently. Population will either just keep on growing or level off gently?

    So I think it’s critical for those who are planning on where to live to answer for themselves where they stand on the overshoot/phantom-carring-capacity issue. It’s not simply a matter of city-cat/country-cat. It’s a matter of determining where the worst bottlenecks are going to be on resource scarcity.

    I don’t think anyone who feels that the earth maybe can support 2 billion or less sustainably (which is the figure I see pop up most often) can do anything but assume that the highest mortality rates in a worst-case-scenario will be in the densest settlements.

  11. P.J. Grath says:

    See http://www.onearth.org/article/how-green-is-my-city as well as the original David Owen article in New Yorker. Owen claimed five years ago that New York City is the greenest place to live. Every American family can’t have five acres in the country without crowding a lot of farmers (I’m talking about family farms of 20-200 acres, say) out of production. Living in the country, as I do, means driving long distances in order to do anything. City life? Public transportation, clustered housing (apartments) and all the energy savings that involves, etc., etc. Great post, Sharon! So glad you are looking at all these ideas and writing about them.

  12. Sharon says:

    Ed, of course we’re in overshoot – but this is a chronic problem which will probably become acute at some point. But even if it does, the “people with land survive, people in cities all die” scenarios just don’t exist through most of our history. Instead, the bottlenecks are more complicated than that – people die with food in the marketplaces and the stores, because they can’t buy any – and historically low income rural farmers have been the biggest victims of this, ones without enough land to fully support themselves. Then the marginally attached urbanites. But there are still rich people in the cities among the poor.

    Most of the places where substantial numbers of people are starving to death also have substantial cities, functioning in ways, in part because the city dwellers that do have jobs often can outbid country dwellers for their own food – or force them to provide it. I have no doubt, my own region, framed by the Hudson and the Mohawk, will be feeding NYC whether we like it or not, for example.

    I have no doubt that the largest cities will get smaller, I have no doubt that many people will do quite badly in urban areas. But the country is no panacea either, particularly for people with urban skill sets.

    I agree with you that we have a much larger population than in the past – I would also observe that many of the cities I see as most liveable actually have *smaller* populations now than they did 50 years ago.

    Sharon

  13. Sharon says:

    Ed, I should add that I think to write off all cities, you have to imagine that the future is so utterly unlike the past that you can draw nothing from it – even the recent past. I find that unlikely.

    Sharon

  14. Ann says:

    Excellent analysis. In summary, don’t depend on generalities for major decisions. Lots of effort is required. Most peak oil posts have become blathering generalities with no useful content. Yours are always useful, mostly because they are specific. This post is a good example of itself.

    Besides generalities, many people have a problem with dreaming. If what you want can be imagined in the comfort of your easy chair, keep it there unless you can handle hard work, embarrassment, frustration, and sometimes pain. That’s what following a dream entails. It is all so much nicer while sitting in the chair. Put the time and effort into caring for yourself and others, then find an hour or two a week to dream of wonderful worlds. It’s the dreaming that’s wonderful, not the worlds.

  15. Chris says:

    Sharon,

    Thanks for another thoughtful and balanced post. I tend to agree with you that cities aren’t going away anytime soon, and that they have both significant advantages and disadvantages when compared to rural areas.

    But there’s a third possibility here that I’d love to see you write more about, and that is a small town. To me a small-to-medium size town (under 80,000 let’s say) surrounded by arable farmland, with enough rainfall and access to wood, moving water or other sources of energy, a dense downtown area with housing in walking or biking distance, and proximity to either waterways or rail is the choice that makes the most sense. It has several of the advantages of both cities and rural areas (although you could say it also has the disadvantages of both).

    Chris

  16. Claire says:

    Having grown up in the size town that Chris mentions (Ann Arbor, MI, population about 80K when I lived there in the 1960s) and having spent 5 years in similarly-sized Champaign-Urbana, IL in the 1980s, and now living in the St. Louis, MO metro area, I can see that the small towns have a lot of what I like in St. Louis and less of what I dislike. The main advantage of these size towns is transport – they are completely bicyclable. When I lived in Champaign-Urbana, I sold my car because it was too expensive to keep (I was in grad school and didn’t have money to spend on a deteriorating car) – and I never missed it. I biked, bussed, or walked everywhere! Plus both towns were surrounded by farmland (unfortunately, megafarms in Champaign-Urbana’s case) , making it much easier to get produce into the town than it is where I now live.

    But I’ll be staying in the greater St. Louis area, thank you. It passes 1 with flying colors, 2 and 3 are OK and better than a lot of places. The answer to 4 depends on where you are with the metro area, because St. Louis has a lot of the stress points of any big metro area. Still, we lived for years in Jennings (an inner suburb most people here think is one of the worst areas to live) and got along fine. We heard shots pretty routinely, and some streets were bad, but ours was OK. We live in a different near-suburban area now, Spanish Lake, that to my mind has about all the good points of both city and rural living. We have an acre of excellent ground (remember, lots of suburbs were built on former farmland with good soil), and I garden it intensively. It’s unincorporated, so I can keep livestock if I ever get confident enough to do so. I’m half a block from a bus line. The price to buy this place was very cheap because it’s perceived in the region as not being one of the desirable places to live, and because the house was too young to be desirably old (built in 1928) and small because it’s old. Because it was built before AC, it has lots of windows and good cross-ventilation, and a roof over the south-facing front porch. We’ve had it sealed and insulated, feasible to do because the initial cost of buying the house was low. My DH’s mom lives in another suburb about 7 miles away; it’s an easy bike ride to her house. Add to this that we live only about 10 miles from downtown St. Louis, and I don’t see that anyplace could be better than this for us unless I were an actual farmer and needed more acreage.

    Interestingly, the housing costs in the city of St. Louis itself, after being very low for many years except in a couple of neighborhoods, went way up during the few years before 2008 as the city suddenly experienced a real renaissance. It’s kind of interesting to watch the city, or at least larger parts of it, become fashionable again. It’s also interesting to watch the push and pull between those who are trying to increase regional sustainability and the business-as-usual bunch.

  17. Thank you so much for writing this post. I think that people forget that neither the city nor the country is perfect – or will be perfect, especially given the fact that we are in population overshoot. But just because neither offers a perfect solution to the problems ahead doesn’t mean that we abandon both of them as options. Where would we be living then?

    @Shaunta Alburger – I live south of Seattle in Olympia. I wish I lived closer to Seattle, but that’s just not an option at this point. From what I’ve seen, there are amazing things going on in Seattle on the sustainability front, not the least of which that it’s the home of Worldchanging and Alex Steffen, who are lobbying hard to set a goal of making Seattle the world’s first carbon neutral city. There is a growing culture of urban gardeners, and Seattle residents are allowed to keep chickens and goats as pets within the city limits (which is more than I can say for my stupid housing association restrictions). If a measure of sustainability is surrounding yourself with a group of progressive people moving collectively in the right direction, Seattle is a great place to be.

  18. Stephen B says:

    Sharon,

    While I agree with you on many of the points you make here, I have to say I’m glad I don’t live in a city.

    Cities, by and large, have terribly unresponsive governments compared to the smaller towns I’ve lived in. A person living in, say Westwood or Holden, Massachusetts, can effect FAR more change towards getting government to make positive accommodations on behalf of the citizenry then one EVER could walking into the concrete monstrosity that is Boston City Hall, where effecting almost ANY change for the better would likely become a full time job but with half the result.

    I’ll take life in a smaller town over one located in a monster municipality run by professional, camera-craving politicians any day.

  19. Claire says:

    On the other hand, St. Louis just got officially recognized as being a bicycle-friendly community – and I’ve been here for 25 years, bicycling for fun and sometimes transport for all of them, so I know how much had to change to get that well-deserved honor. It wasn’t just one person, it was a lot of people working alone and together through different organizations.

    The key to making good things happen in cities is working together. See Sharon’s other blog for a great post on that issue.

  20. Joe says:

    Great post!

    In looking up your book recommendations, I see that “The Integral Urban House” has had a second publishing in 2008. Apparently un-updated, for good or ill, but at least it’s more available.

  21. Glenn in Maine says:

    Hi Sharon, good post. Cities are a big part of the solution, and I don’t say that just because I’ve chosen the urban sustainable route. I took part in the first year of R4A experience and since then have built upon what we started by expanding the vegetable gardens, planting fruit trees, installing a PV system, getting chickens and a greenhouse. Come spring we’ll take delivery of two hives of honeybees, not just for the honey but also the pollination. In terms of community, I’m on the neighborhood association committee that’s developing a 6 acre public garden, which is scheduled to be completed this year. We’ve managed to achieve all our major goals to this point and look forward to continual refinements in sustainability and localization. We realize we’re lucky in that all of our decisions have been by choice not necessity, so the results have felt like rewards and not restrictions. Reality is we’ll need liveable cities to support a prosperous surrounding countryside. What we clearly don’t need, and indeed must dismantle, is the in-between no man’s land of Suburbia.

  22. Clelie says:

    Hi,
    wanted to add a recommendation of a book about techniques for urban living:

    Radical Urban Sustainability Training:
    Autonomous Communities and Permaculture Activism by Kelly Pettigreew and Scott Kellogg

  23. Great post and great discussion. Especially in the discussion between Sharon and Ed, I was struck by the thought that just because you live in an area where it is possible to grow your own food, doesn’t mean you will be so adept at it that you can sustain yourself. In addition, just because the overall chances of starvation or death by violence may be higher in one area or another, I definitely agree that your connection to friends, family and community and your ability to earn a living will have a huge impact on your individual chances of survival in a given location. To me, the individual chances of survival are more relevant when considering a new location. :) I would love to have my own farm, livestock etc, but it would be a radical shift from my former gardening experience and I don’t think I’d be self-sustaining for decades or perhaps ever.

    Also, in a town in France where we wouldn’t mind living, there is a very dense and centralized downtown (which means you can get most places on foot, by bike and by free bus) surrounded by agricultural land that you can buy at a relatively inexpensive price because you are not allowed to build on it. I think that’s not a bad compromise–as long as you can still get to your agricultural land (ie–it’s not too far away for non-car transport). In addition, it’s not a huge city, but it’s the largest city in the region . . .so I’m hoping it will continue to serve as a hub. And it’s been around since Roman times . . .The only problem is the cold winters. Living without heat here would be very, very hard. But again, it has been done–for thousands of years even.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to mull this one over in a different way.

  24. Tony Weddle says:

    I’m not convinced that cities have a future in a sustainable society. Many of the reasons that Sharon mentions are kind of watered down BAU (business as usual) reasons, and sustainable societies won’t be remotely like BAU.

    If we consider the 5 axioms of sustainability that Richard Heinberg distilled from various sources, sustainability boils down to not consuming non-renewable resources, not consuming renewable resources beyond their renewal rates and not degrading the environment that supports us. That’s a very different world from the one we have today. It’s hard to imagine what a city of, say, a million people will do in a sustainable society. Sure, port cities might still be involved in trade but the volume of that trade will be far lower (we won’t be shipping food or plastic trinkets around the world, or even across large nations).

    Surely, most people in a sustainable society will be concentrating on food production, though, with permaculture techniques, that might not be as arduous as it sounds and could support a certain level of “unproductive” pursuits. So some unproductive work, might be possible but I don’t see people livin in densely populated housing, swarming out at daybreak to work for a few hours on some farm several miles away, before swarming back later in the day.

    Not everyone may be able to live at the density that Sharon and her family do, but there is, theoretically, enough arable land for everyone to become self-sufficent in food (though some pooling of land is to be expected, to yield farmlets).

    So, whilst cities might be efficient users of resources in BAU conditions, that doesn’t seem possible in a sustainable society. What will those city folks do for what passes as a “living”, when all the consumer tat is gone?

  25. Anisa says:

    Thanks for this post Sharon. While I’ve always dreamed of living the country life, I’ve become quite content in my urban home. Of course I don’t have the room for goats or horses, and there is traffic noise, but I have close neighbors who pitch in, supportive friends and family close by and a community of local gardeners to consult and trade with. We have chickens and that has satified some of the itch for me (though I’ll still always dream of those horses).

    Recently I had a nightmare about my husband wanting us to abandon our little urban home to move to the country – and the only place to shop would be the local sprawl-mart. I was so distraught about leaving all the local shop keepers in my city! LOL – sort of a silly nightmare, but it made me realize I really love what I have going here in my city.

  26. Glenn in Maine says:

    Tony, I expect we’ll see a return to manufacturing in our cities to employ all those office workers. Take a look at any old directory or map and you’ll find scores if not hundreds of manufacturing establishments catering to local needs and using local resources. In my city for example, the map of 1871 lists such establishments as brick kilns, tanneries, salt works, coopers, soap factories, shoe shops, furniture makers, ice houses, fish packers, planing mills, breweries, boat builders and brass foundries. Most are long gone now, thanks to zoning, cheap oil and imports, but some could (and probably will) come back as we continue down the path towards decentralization and sustainability. All those businesses require cross-fertilization of resources, technologies and materials that you can only find in a city with any degree of efficiency (preferably a port, as in the case of my city). The city also provides the market for the countryside to thrive, not just hobble along on a subsistence existence. My family rely entirely on local area farmers, ranchers and fishermen for what we can’t grow or raise, and they rely on us to provide a reliable guaranteed income via CSAs. We really do need each other.

  27. Dan says:

    Excellent words as usual. I made a decision a few months ago to stop trying to predict the future and instead just start living my convictions. Whatever is to come, will come. The best I can do is the best I can do, in the here and now. So instead of worrying about Peak Oil and Apocalypto 2.0, I’m living my convictions; riding my bike to work, cultivating a vegan diet, localizing where I can, simplifying my life, and trying to find ways to engage with my community. Life goes on. For how long, who knows.

    I may leave this world tomorrow. And if I do, I’ll exit knowing that I didn’t waste what I have right now worrying about what the world will be like in 50 years. I still act with a conscience and seek to do less harm that other beings may have less suffering (which translates into doing everything I can to lessen my impact on climate change), but I don’t stop living my life out of fear for what may come. It’s a radical mental shift and I now consider myself an ex-doomer.

    But my god is it a better way to wake up each day.

    @ Seattle:

    It’s a great place to be if you have the means or ingenuity. Land is not cheap, so unless you have lots of bucks, plan on doing small and intensive. There are some great communities and TONS of organizations to be a part of. You’re never far from nature and the public transit ain’t bad. There are a ton of food co-ops and farmers markets…and still relatively decent social services (libraries, food banks, etc.). That said, rent is still high and the state (like every other) is going through a serious budget crisis. If you don’t need employment…there are tons of small towns within a few hours of here that are more liveable, closer to agriculture, etc. But the un-employment rate in those probably sits around 20-30% functionally…

  28. Sharon says:

    Tony, I guess what my point is that I don’t think that other than in a fantasy world, we’re going to become sustainable in the next couple of generations. So the question is how we manage chronic overshoot in the best possible way.

    As for permaculture, I like it, but show me a couple of large agrarian communities feeding themselves entirely through permaculture methodology and we’ll talk. Even one would be good – I don’t mean a 14 person ecovillage, but a small town of a couple thousand.

    Sharon

  29. Tony Weddle says:

    That’s a fair point Sharon. Provided our societies can managed a slow descent, some cities may not be too bad, though, ultimately, I don’t see cities as part of a long term sustainable future.

    As for permaculture, I think you’re asking an invalid question. There are no permaculture communities outside of a few eco-villages, because of the current mindset we have. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” goes into this quite well.

    If one family can feed themselves entirely through permaculture on a modest piece of land, then a whole community can. Of course, different living arrangements may be needed but that doesn’t make it impossible.

    Are there other ways of living sustainably? I hope so, but it seems a permaculture mindset would be a prime requirement.

    In the end, if sustainable societies can’t support cities, then it’s best to get out of the city, on your own terms, rather than being forced to do so (or have your children be forced to do so) at some later time.

  30. Tony Weddle says:

    Glenn,

    Can a return to manufacturing, in our cities, be sustainable? Isn’t manufacturing (at least on a city scale) instrinsically unsustainable? Richard Heinberg’s five axioms of sustainability suggest to me that it is.

  31. jengod says:

    Wonderful essay. Thank you for your wisdom.

  32. Beth says:

    I moved my family from the city to the country 4 years ago. We grow/raise our own food, which has been an eye-opening experience for the whole family. But, it’s been a tough transition in other areas: the local school is not up to our standards; people can be rather cold; and drug/alcohol abuse is rampant. In fact, just today I found out that my neighbors are making and selling meth; for kicks, they shoot off their semi-automatics in the middle of the night. My advice: Make the best of where you live, especially if you are relatively happy there.

  33. Sharon says:

    Tony, I don’t even know of families doing it. We raise a lot of our own food, and use permaculture principles in our design, but we’re not independent or fully autonomous. Part of that is by design – we are relational, and we grow more food for sale than we eat. But I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t end up buying some of their calorie crops elsewhere. Again, show me the model and we’ll talk about how to replicate it.

    Sharon

  34. Andrew says:

    There was some analysis (Jane Jacobs in her book “Dark Age Ahead”? I can’t really remember) about how country / city folks experienced the 1930′s depression.

    For the first few years, the cities were tough, dangerous and lousy places to live as they went through collapse. Small-holding farmers seemed to fare better.

    However, cities are attractors – and there always seems to be flows of people and goods between them, simply due to their ability to aggregate and create value. So after the first few years, cities seemed to fare better in terms of providing a living. The country became the tough, dangerous and lousy place to live (for not everyone, but most – that’s part of the reason of the generational farm exodus after the depression).

    What will happen the next country / city cycle? Who knows. It is likely not even a cycle. If you factor in cheap transport during 1930-1960′s from oil/roads as “unavailable at this time” due to oil pricing in light of shortages, then maybe the city rebound won’t occur. Maybe cities don’t come back, and we end up with towns (i.e. mini-cities). Or maybe, towns have trouble reaching a level to be an attractor – today most towns rely on other levels of system-wide tax support to subsidize services.

    So for now, the choice of where to live is risky and transitory – our children and grandchildren may not be able to make a different choice later.

  35. Thanks for the information about Seattle.

    Beth: My family moved from the city to the country about three years ago, and I was totally shocked by the extent of drug and alcohol problems here. It’s insane. As a drug and alcohol counselor, it keeps me in work, but goodness. I’m sure there was plenty in Las Vegas, but the difference was in a big town we could avoid it. Not here. Meth is a huge huge problem.

    We will have to work. But I also have the means to earn enough for us to live on doing freelance writing. In fact, I plan to work from home in Seattle when we get there. I also have all the stock to start an online vintage clothing store, which I’ve done very well with in the past. Times have changed, so I wouldn’t count on that as an only source of income now–but four years ago I was earning about $500 a week.

    I’m big on not having just one source of income.

    And I’m super super excited to live near local sources of food.

  36. [...] Astyk wrote a very interesting post this week about Reconsidering Cities. Once again it got me to thinking about whether the right decision for us is a few acres outside a [...]

  37. Glenn in Maine says:

    Tony, obviously I don’t know what the future holds, but clearly I don’t expect a return to BAU on the finance capitalism model any more than anyone else who are preparing for and reacting to our current demise. Manufacturing however has been around since well before the fossil fuel era, so I’d guess there’d be some sort of return to local production for necessities. Medieval cities for example were machines for manufacturing (see H. Saalman), taking in raw materials and turning out finished products. I’m encouraged by the fact that my city is surrounded by pre-fossil fuel era resources, and am doing everything I can to support local establishments.

    Sharon’s earlier points about when and where a city developed are critical to keep in mind. Pre-oil age cities have built-in advantages of location, infrastructure and physical densities that are clearly much better suited to declining energy inputs as compared to auto-centric sprawlsvilles. By way of example, consider that since 1860 (the start of the oil age) the population of my city has increased by 2.5 times, New England as a whole 4 times but the US overall has multiplied 10 times. So to start with we have less far to fall. If we assume a return to 1860 levels of per capita energy use, and further assume that energy efficiency has doubled since then, the implication is my city will enjoy standards of living only slightly below 1860 levels, New England as a whole will be half as well off, but the US overall must make do with 80% less energy per capita. Which is to be expected, since all of New England was settled pre-oil and has grown much slower than the rest of the US, where most of their growth has been of the post-war auto oriented suburban variety

    As I mentioned, we’re surrounded by resources. Within a 15 mile radius we get all our dairy (milk, cheese, butter, ice cream), meat (beef, pork, poultry), native seasonal fruit and veg (too much to enumerate), not to mention seafood, plus the majority of our pantry items like honey, maple syrup and herbs. Beer, wine and some liquor (vodka, mead, brandy, rum) are also produced locally. Our winter hot house vegetables and greens are grown within 25 miles, and beyond 25 miles (but still within the state) are our oats, flours, beans and some oils. The freezers, root cellar and pantry are filled in season with a year’s supply of every local ingredient as it becomes available. The only things we import in any quantity are tea, wine and olive oil. We’ve spent over 20 years cultivating these sources, and I am pleased to say that all are small scale and most are organic or at least IPM.

    Beyond food, we get 6 cords of local firewood every year to heat the house. We have a PV electricity system that will provide about 2/3 our annual power consumption, but the power plants in the area are smaller scale and use a diversity of fuels (4 hydro, one natural gas, two trash incinerators, one biomass, one waste oil). City infrastructure delivers our water (source is the deepest lake in New England, 12 miles away) and removes our waste (recycle everything possible and burn the rest to generate electricity). The neighborhood provides most all our services within walking distance, including post office, library, schools, green grocer, butcher, tailor, hair salon, dentists & doctors offices, bakery, cobbler, restaurants and churches. All are independent, none are chains. Within biking distance, or via the bus, is the rest of the city, and everything that entails, including recreational opportunities.

    All told, the more I analyzed our location, the more comfortable I became that we couldn’t find a better place to ride things out in the years ahead.

  38. Tony Weddle says:

    Sharon,

    I’m not sure if you’re saying that it’s impossible for a family to live self-sufficiently in food. Are you saying that?

    If that were true then, by extension, societies can’t be self-sufficient in food and the world as a whole can’t be. Hopefully, this is not the case.

    Now, it’s true that some areas may be deficient in some essential elements and so, initially, supplements may need to be imported, though this is true at, theoretically, all levels of community, from family up.

    So I don’t accept that a household cannot supply all of their own food, from their own property. I don’t personally know of anyone who does but it must be doable and I’ve read several books that claim just that, in practice. That’s what we’re trying to do, also.

    In a city or high density urban area, self-sufficiency is impossible and community self-sufficiency equally impossible. The kind of set up for a city to be self-sufficient, especially in a sustainable society, would be prohibitive, I think, and most unlikely to happen.

  39. Tony Weddle says:

    Glenn,

    I still don’t think city scale communities are needed for manufacturing at the scale required for a sustainable society.

    It sounds like you live in a pretty good location for the short term. However, you seem to be describing a cut down BAU society, where pretty much everything that goes on now will go on forever, just at reduced levels of energy use and reduced standards of living.

    Perhaps the main problem I have with cities is that I just can’t see what all those people (up to a million people, in the case of the largest city that Sharon sees as viable) will do, within a sustainable society, for a “living”. I put that last word in quotes because I don’t think we’ll look at it in quite the same way that we do now. A sustainable society will have a very different economy and a very different way of doing business, since growth and profit would be absent. Also, whilst some “unproductive” roles may be supportable and desirable in a sustainable society, they would be at a vastly reduced scale than today.

  40. Tony Weddle says:

    Perhaps I should add that, apart from my seeing cities being wrong for a sustainable model, if society doesn’t transition voluntarily to such a model, collapse is certain (since unsustainable societies can’t endure). At the moment, collapse looks the more likely scenario. Cities, in a collapsing society look even less attractive (that’s not to say any community will be immune from collapse, just that models other than cities will probably be less impacted).

  41. Glenn in Maine says:

    Hi Tony, perhaps the question has more to do with living an urban lifestyle and less to do with actual population numbers. My city has 65,000 people and is dense, compact and geographically sharply defined (it’s a peninsula). Efficiencies of service delivery are built-in because we don’t cover much land area for number of people served. The ‘metro area’ encompasses most of the county and has about 275,000 people. Our weekday population is 50% higher as we get commuters from the outlying towns (I hesitate to say suburbs because, except for Scarborough and Falmouth, there’s actually very little outright sprawl). What all those service-sector jobs will become I’ve no idea, but I expect we’ll always be saddled with lawyers and bureaucrats in one form or another. Also the port is a huge advantage, not just because of the fishing fleet, but the cargo service, ferry terminals and potential as a tidal power source.

    In terms of food self-sufficiency, since an acre of mixed farmland of moderate cultivation yields 6750 cal/day average, that feeds 3 people at 2,250 cal/day (a reasonable intake). My county has 54,455 acres of farmland, thus providing just over 1300 cal/day per person. The state overall runs a surplus, and the region as a whole is about even, strictly by the numbers. So my ‘foodshed’, to use Sharon’s term, requires imports from surrounding exporting counties. This of course doesn’t factor in seafood, which is a huge component of our diet.

    I suppose I’ve taken a page out of Dan’s book in that we grow as much as we can on our little city lot ( a surprising amount actually), obtain the rest from local sources, and are content. We’ve tried to merge seasonal local eating patterns with an urban lifestyle in an effort to withdraw from the market economy as much as we possibly can. Feel free to email me directly if you’d like at [email protected] and we can continue the discussion without bothering the others here.

  42. Tony Weddle says:

    Hi Glenn,

    I’m reluctant to discuss this just between the two of us because I’d like a wide input to this. I also have a lot of time for Sharon’s words but in this, I just don’t see how cities (as we currently understand them) can be part of a sustainable society.

    From your figures, it looks like your county could not sustain itself in food, though permaculture yields could be a lot higher (Biointensive research by Ecology Action suggests 10 people could be fully fed on an acre.) However, the way to look at it is how much energy and other resources go into sustaining a city of hundreds of thousands of densely packed people?

    Cities are probably quite efficient compared to rural homesteads, with people living lives commensurate with modern consumptive culture but a rural homestead might be able to get along with a tenth of the resources it consumes now, growing food highly locally and, perhaps, coppicing a sustainable woodlot. How would a city of densely packed homes, including some multi-story buildings (or high rise blocks) sustain itself in food and heating? Maybe renewable energy can be part of the solution (though I never see environmental impact assessments for renewable projects), but I don’t think we can assume anything about how cities can be supported. We need to start from scratch, assessing what is possible in a sustainable society and if cities can be part of that.

    None of this, of course, takes into account how cities will fare during the collapse stage, even if a sustainable society emerges from the ashes. That’s an awful lot of densely packed people slowly realising that any aspirations they had for their futures are evaporating before their eyes. How will people react to that; that’s the million dollar question.

  43. Vickey says:

    Going back to access to health care as one factor in surviving and thriving: rural & semi-rural areas are at a high risk for loss of this service. Just as small towns are often end-of-the-line for distribution of goods, necessary medical and other services are often unavailable in less-densely populated areas.

    A small hospital 30 minutes from us was “downsized” to just an emergency room, now that is also closing. This is literally a death sentence upon those for whom the longer ambulance ride to the next nearest emergency room will mean “not making it”.

    Looks like descent from here…

  44. Glenn in Maine says:

    Hi Tony, I’m happy to add to this discussion here, and appreciate the different perspectives everyone brings. I’ve been aware of this predicament since the ’70s but only began preparing in earnest during the last 10 years. Except for a brief hiatus of 5 years when we tried country living, we’ve been in Portland since ’82. The country experiment failed because of isolation, auto dependency, and winter, basically. We had 28 acres and certainly could have become (nearly) totally self-sufficient, but that model strikes me as having much less of a meaningful future than the community based one. No support network as the nearest neighbor was a 20 minute walk away. So now we’re comfortably ensconced in a trolley car-era neighborhood of 4,500 people, 2 miles from downtown, on 3 bus routes, and surrounded by open space. It’s really more a throwback to the way things used to be in terms of human scaled urban living.

    The internet has proven an invaluable tool in getting different opinions and outlooks on the various facets of the situation to hand. As we’ve achieved most of our major goals in terms of preparation, we’re looking to continually refine the process, build resiliency and redundancy, and extend the network wherever possible. We’ve consciously chose the integral urban homestead model (still have my copy of the Farralones Institute book), but don’t expect it’s for everyone of course. That said, I can’t envision any sort of sustainable future where cities don’t figure into the mix, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be around in their current guise.

  45. Vickey says:

    Glenn, your situation sounds ideal in many ways, but what about sea level rises? Being on a peninsula sounds risky in the not-too-distant term.

  46. Glenn in Maine says:

    Yes, Vickey, we expect to lose the areas that have been infilled over the past four centuries: http://www.nrcm.org/sea_level_rise.asp The projected shoreline looks remarkably like the outline when the English first settled here. So I’m as sanguine about it as I can be as a result.

    It is an ideal place in many ways. Having roots 10 generations deep may color my thinking, but I think my analysis has been subjective. Two major drawbacks however are the length of winter, and the fact that we’re currently still appended to the United States.

  47. [...] Sustainability, Vision) Sharon Astyk wrote a very interesting post a couple of weeks ago about Reconsidering Cities. It got me to thinking about whether the right decision for us is a few acres outside a small [...]

  48. Tony Weddle says:

    Glenn,

    Unlike you, I certainly can envision a sustainable future without cities. Indeed, I find it extremely difficult to see how we can have cities in a sustainable society. Although there may be ideal arrangements which aren’t realistic (I’ve seen designs for connected but almost autonomous communities that are, at best, village size (a few thousand), cities are just too big and crowded to sustain within a sustainable society.

    However, regardless of what some ideal or practical societal arrangement might be, it seems likely, given the almost complete disregard for limits, that we’ll have to undergo some version of collapse first. A city in the midst of a collapsing society does not seem likely to be very safe or very pretty for a long time, even though there will, no doubt, be pockets of great human achievements and community, within them.

    However, I do applaud what you’ve achieved and wish you the best of luck.

  49. Ani says:

    This is a timely topic for me as I have been thinking about this very subject. I’ve been living in a very rural area since 1996. I’ve done the “homesteader” thing complete with milking goats, etc, and have been vegie farming the whole time plus other stuff to make up for the lack of income. I’m now at a point where even though I have all of the things in some ways, that many people who read your blog think they want- off-grid system, spring, greenouse, fruit trees, etc- the lack of any decent jobs, bad weather, constant need to drive to get anywhere, difficulty with any sort of real social life(I don’t know even one elibible man for instance- and nobody I know can think of one in this area either!), etc is really getting to me. My community has changed the past few years as well, with some people leaving to be replaced by nice people but more intent on socializing with others in their 20′s with young kids. So with the decreased sense of “community” here, my own kid out of the nest(yay) and my desire to stop farming and do something else- well, I am reconsidering whether a rural area is really where I want to be anymore.

    The biggest issue for me is really that if I sell this place, I’m not likely to be able to buy a place with the proceeds in any sort of place I’d like to be- and the prices have skyrocketed in those sorts of areas such as Boston, Portland, Oregon, Seattle WA etc- so would be faced with selling a paid-for place and not being able to afford another perhaps- not sure what I’d do for work in these places at this point either.

    I do think that while rural living has many nice points- town or city living can provide a lot of benefits as well. It really depends a lot on your family structure, work situation, need for stuff such as a music/art/dance scene etc. I think- don’t think people should flee to rural areas out of fear, but move there if they do, seeking what these areas have.

  50. [...] that everyone do – in fact, I’ve written a number of pieces over the years making the case for cities and strengthening ties between city and rural areas. I even think there’s a case for some of [...]

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