Thanks a lot for following me all this time. Well, at a cerebral level, I worry that China is getting a free pass. The argument in favor of China’s growth while getting away with horrible environmental harms is basically that the country first has to grow and stabilize. This is hard to argue against. Once incomes and education and health indicators are at a certain level, so says the Chinese government, only then will they remediate their environmental destructions. (Go here for a list of China’s Environmental Issues). Only consumer-based economies have proven track records following this rapid growth/aggressive resource extraction and then stabilization/clean up model.
Most western countries followed this approach, too - rapid economic growth paired with extreme resource extraction, then efficiencies through technology, and then clean up. I’d argue that major countries, the UN, and the World Bank encourage this model.
Severe though China’s problems with water, soil and air are, they are not different in kind from those of other nations in the past. As Pan Jiahua of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) puts it, “We’re following the US, Japan and UK and because of inertia we don’t have the capacity to stop quickly.” Via
But I think China is different than the West. It’s compressing what Europe and the U.S. did in 400 years down to 25. China’s ravaging ecosystems at such great speeds and big scales that there’s no built-in recovery time.
During that 400 year growth period, New England, for example, was deforested four times. How four times? Because the forests had time to bounce back and recover. I’m not saying America is righteous. I’m saying that China seems to be ignoring the capabilities of ecosystems to recover at such rapid paces and large scales - it cannot deforest four times in 25 years.
In August, the Economist explored how China’s rapid growth comes at the expense of tremendous environmental pollution. Check it out if you can.
In real life I worry about sea level rise along coasts in western countries. Yes, poor countries will be hit hard. Distasteful as it sounds, coastal communities in poor countries can be moved (sometimes by force) much more easily than, say, Manhattan or Miami. And the world needs the economies of western countries in order to recover. If the west suffers, so will the rest of the world with respect to environmental recovery and disaster response efforts.
You can read about displaced people, called Climate Refugees, here.
This is incredibly complicated and I’m not really going to answer your question directly. There are a variety of design and urban planning techniques to help cities be more dense while being more livable. Form Based Code, Smart Growth, sustainable planning, etc., are very common, easily replicable, and very flexible solutions to this.
The problem with these solutions are that people are not staying in one place for very long. This trend of people moving to cities will slow a bit, and cities can adapt and absorb the influxes.
The real question, to my mind, is how to make them stay? These new people rarely participate in local government. They rarely stay or invest in a place, typically using the city as a catalyst to elevate their socioeconomic standing.
This is fine, but cities will suffer in the next demographic swing. As it stands, most cities are planning for the next 10-20 years using a stable or growing tax base. This is just not true. Tax receipts will not continue to grow, they’ll be more volatile, creating deeper dips and higher spikes in local economies.
Tax receipts, which are used for things like water, health, education, environment, security, business development, and transportation, will (probably) implode.
Detroit (or the entire country of Japan) is a good example of this. Both based their planning goals on false demographics.
So, while most cities are scrambling to provide design solutions, they really should be pivoting towards investing in the people. How? Diversity in education systems. Having a strong public school system is great, creating a system that includes charter, specialty, religious schooling options is even better. Assisting people with their health care options should include increased focus on mental health. Study after study has shown that when people improve their mental health, their physical health and relationships with communities greatly improves. Investment in parks, environmental quality, and conservation areas consistently (in nearly every country) show economic and health resiliency.
Here’s a sweet little report discussing some of these solutions: Demographic change in European cities: City practices for active inclusion.
There are tons of other things, like creating a Happiness Index, which measures how happy people are in the current situations. If there are dips and swings to this index, government can nudge the bar in one direction or the other.
Thanks for the interesting question!