Ecological Urbanism for the 21st Century
In the age-old cultural ebb and flow between city and country, the city has made a remarkable turnaround. Not so long ago, cities were seen as a cancer that would have to be contained if we were to save the planet. Now cities are more often portrayed as the best solution to what ails life on earth.
Even more remarkably, this turn has taken place at the same time as a crucial demographic shift: Globally, more people now live in cities than in the countryside. During a similar transition in England in the 19th century, there was a romantic cultural turn to the pastoral, as Raymond Williams observed in his classic The Country and the City. In the United States, in the early 20th century, this demographic transition was marked by President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of a Commission on Country Life amid profound cultural angst about the fate of rural America.
We've come a long way from the Roosevelt commission's concern with the "deficiencies" of country life, although the Obama administration recently created a White House Rural Council to "address challenges in rural America." To be sure, we still hear plenty of paeans to that "real America," though only one out of five Americans lives there now, as well as to "wild nature," though most ecologists have come to accept that virtually nothing about nature is untouched by humanity.
The dominant discourse these days, however, unabashedly celebrates the city as the future, in books with titles such as David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009) and Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin Press, 2011).
We share much of their excitement and optimism, but we are wary of this urban triumphalism. We worry that it is blinding us to problems as well as to opportunities for understanding the vital relationship between the country and the city, and right at a time ripe for innovation in the academic fields most concerned with this relationship, particularly urban planning and ecology.