April 14, 2012

Urban Living: Friend or Foe?

Cities sometimes get a bad rap. You know, the ‘inner city’ or the ‘dark satanic mill.’ Negative impressions of cities generally involve images of people packed in like sardines, pounding the hot concrete all day. We have a different view: that cities are the best and most sustainable place to live.

Social sustainability

The dense concentration of smart, creative, educated and entrepreneurial citizens in cities leads to the holy grail of urban neighbourhoods: a buzzing, vibrant, mish-mash of different people and ideas, creating a hub of positive economic and social interactions. Urban neighbourhoods, contrary to popular belief, have strong, thriving, tight-knit communities, where people congregate in local parks, or bump into one another at the local, independent coffee shop. These are not the kind of places where you leave your house, jump in your car, and drive to the local big box development at the corner of Main Ave. and Major St. An urban neighbourhood is a community where residents have favourite local destinations – perhaps a café with great coffee, an authentic ethnic restaurant or a great park – but also have access to wider opportunities in the rest of the City.

Toronto is a collection of unique urban neighbourhoods, often with a particular flavour: artists, students, young professionals, families, and several different cultures are all present in various different city neighbourhoods. Residents of downtown Toronto have access to all of these distinct urban neighbourhoods, making living in Toronto an individually-tailored mosaic of different experiences and opportunities only possible in a dense urban centre.

Urban areas support a greater diversity of people, greater specialization in small businesses, more opportunity and more wealth. In a successful, vibrant urban neighbourhood, everything is at your fingertips: cafes, childcare, family doctor, school, work, and whatever else tickles your fancy. The flip side of this is opportunity: wealth and a diversity of jobs in a concentrated area. Want to start a business, a not-for-profit or simply change the way our country works? You have endless resources and knowledge at your disposal. The successful city has opportunity and potential that just can’t be matched anywhere else.

Environmental sustainability

The primary reason cities are green has to do with energy use. Energy (which can be used as electricity, gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or any other fuel) is a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, so using less energy is, well, better.

The City of Toronto’s energy use is a bit counter-intuitive – Toronto, as a major economic hub, boasts a ton of offices, factories, businesses and institutions, all of which you would expect to drive up energy use. Yet surprisingly, the city uses only 15% of the province’s total energy, despite housing 20% of Ontario’s population. Why is that? Well, in my neighbourhood only 3 people in 10 drive to work, meaning that 7 in 10 walk, bike, or take the public transit. Houses in urban areas are smaller, and so require less energy to heat and cool. This is efficient, ‘green’ living, and has an added bonus of saving you some coin on energy bills (helps pay for that $5 latte). If more of SW Ontario was dense and urban, with less suburban sprawl, we would have fewer smog days and the planet would be a little less overheated.

In 2008, for the first time in history, we became an urban planet: globally, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. From a sustainability perspective, this is good news. It means more urban people using proportionately less energy. And, because urban areas are the heart of a country’s creative activity, cities will create the solutions to the world’s current problems. The information in this blog is, of course, only the first layer of the onion. Cities are fascinating and complex places, and if this topic interests you, I highly recommend the documentary Urbanized, or the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.




1 Comment

  1. Sarah

    April 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm —

    Great article Peter!

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