Balancing Ecology and Economy in the Age of Megacities
As mentioned in the previous blog, systemic problems require systemic solutions. Nowhere is this need more noticeable than within the communities where we live. Our cities are becoming larger with each passing decade. Urban sprawl and suburban expansion are coalescing to form massive metropolitan areas across the globe necessitating a new term, megacities.
A 2014 United Nations report found that 54% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This is the first time in recorded human history that more of us live in cities than in rural areas. Recent trends also indicate that Millennials are choosing city life over the suburbs like never before. We are witnessing an urban renaissance and the rise of the mega city. This has major implications because cities are and always have been where the action is, the places where innovation, development, and economic growth occurs.
“Nations depend heavily on cities to yield up more in taxes than the cities get back in governmental goods and services. … That is why such programs are national rather than local: to iron out regional discrepancies in wealth. …the fact remains that cities are the milch cows of economic life.”
– Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations
Sprawl: Taking the City with You
Megacities are forming because of two factors; suburban expansion, and an unprecedented migration from rural to urban areas. These factors are readily apparent here in the United States.
America is a study in sprawl. Compared to many other parts of the world, we have the space to spread out and spread out is exactly what we’ve been doing for generations. It began with the, “Go west, young man” wanderlust of our earliest pioneers, and has never let up. Since the end of WWII Americans have been moving out of cities and into the suburbs and in the process many of those suburbs have grown into cities themselves.
I did it myself back in 1996. After four years of living in an apartment in Dallas, my wife and I decided it was time to find a home wherein we would raise our family. We began looking, but everything nearby was out of our price range. So we drove further out and found a small community beyond one of the biggest suburbs. We found a lot we liked at a price we could afford, and our home was built from the ground up just for us. Our back porch faced west and ten feet beyond our back yard was a hundred-acre cornfield with an honest-to-god red barn and windmill on the far side. In the evenings we’d sit on the porch and watch the silhouette of the barn and windmill against the setting sun. We loved it despite the long commutes to work.
That was the principle drawback. After spending months looking for just the right house in the right neighborhood at the right price, we seldom saw our neighbors because we were always commuting to and from work, the grocery store, the gym, or anywhere else we need to go. When we did find time to spend at home and enjoy the life we’d intended, we were either too busy doing neglected housework or too tired to want to socialize with neighbors. Thus, it was hard to establish connections within our chosen community. Other drawbacks included the lack of amenities and infrastructure. There was only one small grocery store, three restaurants, two gas stations, and more than a few narrow farm-to-market roads to traverse.
But that all changed. Rapidly. It turns out we weren’t the only ones looking for a nice place to live. There were others, several thousand others. In ten years the population exploded, making ours one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. There were around 20,000 people living in Frisco, Texas when we moved there in 1996. As of this writing, the population is 168,000+. That’s an increase of over 1000% in twenty years!
We thought we’d moved out of the city and into a small town, not realizing that we (as in all of us new residents combined) brought the city with us.
“All developing economic life depends on city economies; it depends on them by definition because, wherever economic life is developing, the very process itself creates cities and has probably always done so.”
– Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations
It was shocking how quickly the transformation happened. Within four years of our house being built, 160 others had been built in our subdivision. The farm behind us was sold, the quaint barn and windmill torn down, and the wide-open expanse of cornfield became home to another subdivision, an elementary school, a middle school, and a strip mall anchored by a large grocery store. New subdivisions were being built by the dozens and more strip malls, restaurants, and chain stores soon followed. It seemed as if all the land in town was either under development or up for sale.
This “taking the city with you” is a pattern that has repeated itself over and over and over across the country. People get tired of living in the city or the urban sprawl of the suburbs and start looking for a way out, a place in the country, the American dream. Knowing there is a demand, developers locate acreage outside the city or the farthest suburb and build homes with large yards and lots of open space – maybe even a golf course or a lake – all in an effort to appeal to the ideal American Dream.
Next, people (like me) move to the new developments, but since it’s a small community with little or no work to offer, we must continue to commute to and from our old jobs in the city. And not just jobs; we also have to commute for groceries, restaurants, daycare, and almost everything else. We soon find that living in the sticks gets old after awhile and begin to wish we had all those amenities close by. We need not wait long. Thanks to the principle of supply and demand, where there is a housing boom there is a corresponding development boom. Eager to cash in, developers and entrepreneurs happily oblige, and more farmland is bought, paved over, and built up to provide the conveniences we crave.
Unwittingly, we – just like everyone else – had become participants in the demise of the very thing we sought. We thought we were getting a better life in a small town. Instead, our very presence gave rise to the infrastructure and amenities that begat a bustling city very much like the one we had moved out of.
“Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First they were driving through countryside, then, imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became the city.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
We all pay the price for that type of growth. All those people quickly make small, two-lane farm roads inadequate. Sewage and water facilities are pushed to keep up. Schools must expand quickly or risk becoming unacceptably crowded. And the list goes on. Tax dollars can only go so far and a community will only tolerate so many bond elections. Thus, growth creates problems that necessitate more growth to provide the tax base to alleviate those problems. Continued expansion is seen as the only option because, seriously, what other options are there? (This is accepted as fact even though infinite growth is not possible within a finite space.) No mayor or city council member wants to preside over the death of a town, so jobs, business, and new opportunities are eagerly sought out.
Unfortunately, there is too much capitulating to business. Many municipalities have an economic development council that works tirelessly to lure companies to the community. Cities and towns compete with each other to win the same businesses and the companies and developers know this, so they shop around for the best deal, playing cities against each other. Usually the community that wins is the one that makes the most concessions.
This isn’t hyperbole. It happens every time an NFL team threatens to leave a city unless it gets a new stadium paid for by taxpayers. It’s happening right now with Amazon’s recent announcement to build a second headquarters. The linked article from the New York Times notes that, “…Amazon had received forms of public subsidies totaling at least $613 million for 40 of the 77 warehouses it built from 2005 to 2014.” That’s $613 million in subsides for a company with annual revenues of $136 billion. Thank you taxpayers.
Side Note: This is tantamount to corporate extortion, as was pointed out just days after this post went up on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. As you’ll see, my hometown of Frisco, Texas is one of many that has made a bid to Amazon.
This is the downside of the economic development council in your community successfully landing a big company willing to set up operations in your city. Sure, it will create jobs and increase the tax base (mostly through new residents purchasing houses), but to win the deal, the city most likely has to cough up various tax abatements and/or subsidies. This often translates into the new company paying very little, if anything, in taxes for the first several years it’s in operation. That means little or no revenue into city and school district coffers.
Furthermore, such prized companies are nearly always large national chains or multinational corporations with no ties to the community whatsoever. They have very deep pockets and can easily drive locally owned and operated retailers out of business. This is often referred to as The Wal-Mart Effect, but as the articles linked above make clear, Wal-Mart is hardly the only major player gaming the system.
Regardless of the business, the results are often the same. When it’s all said and done, a community lands a super-retailer/mega-corporation that pays little or no taxes, is owned by outsiders with little or no interest in the community, and may well destroy several local businesses. However, even if the prized company pays fair and solid wages, taxes, and makes contributions to local charities, they still may have a net negative impact on the local economy. Why? Because their profits aren’t shared with the community. That money goes to pay stockholders and corporate executives that most likely live somewhere else. In a very real sense, they’re actually siphoning money out of the local economy.
That’s the result of competition between cities. That’s what capitalism, expansion, and growth have become because of the system that is currently in place – a system based upon competition, commerce, and continuous expansion. The current state of affairs is a systemic problem requiring a systemic solution.
“Development is a do-it-yourself process; for any economy it is either do it yourself or don’t develop. All of today’s highly developed economies were backward at one time, yet transcended that condition.”
– Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations
Those immersed in the system – as we all are to one degree or another – will say that it’s all in the name of progress. But is it progress?
Towns that once had their own unique character and charm now look just like every place else. They have the same gas stations, the same restaurants and fast food chains, the same mega stores, the same strip malls, the same everything. It’s all become a bland generic landscape. Blindfold someone and drop them on any random street corner in any sizeable American city or suburb. Take off the blindfold and ask them where they are. If it weren’t for the mountains in the distance you couldn’t tell Denver from Dallas.
No one can stop developers from buying land and doing what they want with it. We live in a free country built on capitalism. Likewise, anyone can sell their land if they want to. I certainly don’t blame the farmers. They bust their butts for generations trying to earn a living from the land then a group of investors comes along and offers them millions of dollars. That’s typically more money than they’ve seen in their lives and are ever likely to see, so of course they sell out. The rest is inevitable.
It’s a vicious cycle and it is the system that allows the process to happen in the first place. Consider that before all the new development started in the community where my wife and I settled, land in the given area was relatively inexpensive. Almost anyone could afford to move there, but the downside was that there weren’t any jobs to be had in the small town. Once everything began being developed, there were more businesses and more jobs, but now the price of homes had gone up to the point that many couldn’t afford to live there. The choice became one between inexpensive homes and no jobs, or plenty of jobs and more expensive homes. Those observing the growth of the area would say we were experiencing a boom. But what happens when the growth stops or when some of the big companies decide to move out? The community will go into a bust cycle where property values fall and there will then be lots of people without jobs and with mortgages they can’t afford.
This cycle of boom to bust happens all the time all around the country. Look at Detroit during the seventies or any number of steel towns in the northeast or oil towns in Texas. All but the most diversified communities are susceptible to the boom bust cycle.
Consider also that economies aren’t the only casualties of “taking the city with you.” Fields and forests are disappearing. Wildlife habitats are being encroached upon at ever increasing speeds as farms and wilderness are plowed under to make way for urban expansion and suburban sprawl. Arable land, once valued for its fertility and ability to grow food, is now valued solely for its location, its viability for development within a growing municipality. It’s very sad. I’m convinced that someday a developer is going to plow up the last acre of farmland, build a house on it, and sell it. On his way home from the bank, he’ll get hungry and realize it’s too late. At that point, it may well be too late for all of us.
Urbanization: Supersized Cities
According to the United Nations, “The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100.”
The result of increased population combined with an increase in the number of people living in cities is the rise of megacities. Thus, we have a situation where cities are becoming super-sized, suburbs are becoming cities in their own right, and the surrounding countryside is slowly consumed to feed development. Cities are what drive economies, but they also pose a serious threat to the environment. Think about it. If we develop all the land for housing, business, and infrastructure, where will our food come from? Where do livestock graze? Where are crops grown? What are city dwellers going to eat?
In the past, when the majority of humanity lived in rural areas and a minority lived in cities, this wasn’t a pressing issue. It is now. Economics cannot be the sole consideration of cities. Nor can rural areas be regarded as “the environment.” All those millions of people living in massive megacities need to eat. Until now, the food has come from, “out there, in the country.” But what happens when there is no more country? What happens when “out there” is subsumed or consumed by our ever-expanding cities? How will we feed ourselves? How will we survive?
Whether we opt to live in a small town (that may well become a city), or within an urban area, we all need similar things: food, water, clothing, shelter, opportunity, and income. How do we achieve this without destroying the environment we need to sustain ourselves? If we as a species aren’t careful, we will become participants in our own demise. Therefore, we must find a balance between economy (growth, expansion, commerce, supply & demand) and ecology (clean air, water, arable land) and then implement a system wherein such equilibrium may be maintained indefinitely.
This is the whole point of the Cooperative Community concept.
More to come…
Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.