Californian Urban Growth a Solution?

Dr Edward Glaeser recommends living in the city to preserve the environment:

Do you really want to be good to the environment? Stay away from it. Move to high-rise apartments surrounded by plenty of concrete. Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who live cheek by jowl in urban towers.

Further, when environmentalists resist new construction in their dense but environmentally friendly cities, they inadvertently ensure that it will take place somewhere else – somewhere with higher carbon emissions. Much local environmentalism, in short, is bad for the environment.

I appreciate the sentiment, but I think there are some issues that deserve mention before we all become urban yuppies who feel good about living in Californian urban centres and urge others to do the same.

Are glass and concrete skyscrapers any more human than glitzy McMansions, or do both entomb human life? From the point of view of human culture, I say the two are merely the urban and suburban counterparts of each other: both pretend to raise man to a higher level, but both fail to make man any more human, instead his spirit to the level of money, machines and consumption.

And the conservation issue about their recommendation of population growth in Californian urban centres is this: there is no amount of water in California to justify the number of people living away from natural water sources. If you’ve read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, you’ll probably believe me when I advise against shifting more of the population to California.

Urban density? Sure, no problem with me: Hong Kong’s a great example of density working well. The public transportation system is excellent, being both reliable and cheap. The valleys are jam-packed with people living in very tall buildings. At the same time, hilly areas – which are all over the place – are hardly settled, so there’s a lot of accessible green space. Pollution seems manageable. Hong Kong’s major weakness is drinking water, but it’s managed without huge aquaeduct systems, unlike the state of California as a whole.

The model, then, can succeed, but we must consider resource location and try as hard as we can to remember that cities are for fully human life, not merely for environmentally-friendly subsistence.

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