Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletOctober 20, 2019

Earth Concerns News

Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Chapter 6 by Sister Linda Neil, CSJ

This month the Home/Land Committee continues a discussion of the book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, by Lester Brown. Chapter 6 is entitled "Designing Cities for People."

In the last century, humans have become city dwellers by the millions. In 1900 about 150 million persons lived in cities; today three billion individuals live in cities. We humans are now an urban species! Living in a city has its environmental challenges. Air quality is certainly a problem. "In some cities the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day." (144) Cars are the largest contributor to poor air quality. Modern cities have been designed or re-designed for cars and not for persons. Think about some of the cities you know. Interstates often bisect the city. Pedestrians and bicyclists take their lives in their hands navigating congested streets. Huge parking lots take up a great deal of room; there are definitely more parking lots than parks! Besides the pollution that cars bring, they also foster a lack of community; a very impersonal atmosphere is created when people get around in their cars, separated from one another.

To correct these problems, many cities are thinking of creative ways to do city planning, ways that are focused on individuals and not on automobiles. City planners are actually designing "pedestrian cities" where persons can walk, bike or take public transportation. Some cities like Oslo, Bergen and London are charging a tax on cars to enter the city. Singapore initiated this type of tax and improved both its air quality and mobility and cut down on noise pollution.
Of course this action also demands more efficient public transportation. Besides subway systems that are both safe and fast, many cities are adopting light-rail surface systems and/or BRT (bus-based rapid transit). Bogota's BRT is being replicated in other cities around the world. China is investing in this system which will move more than 600,000 people in one day!
In many countries like China, Denmark, Netherlands and Germany, bike transportation is very popular. China has 430 million bikes. The Netherlands has one bike per person, and Denmark and Germany have just under one bike per person. The Italian government subsidizes the purchase of bikes and electric bikes as a way to improve air quality and reduce the number of cars on the road. In the United States, police departments, colleges and universities lead the way in encouraging bike use. The University of New England in Maine gives incoming freshmen a bike if the freshmen will leave their cars at home! Encouraging bicycle use demands designated bike lanes to increase safety. Unfortunately in the US, only one percent of all trips are taken on bikes.
Another urban woe is water use. Right now we are employing systems that use water once to flush away industrial and human waste. In this way water coming into a city leaves the city laden with toxins that are often discharged into lakes and rivers. Surface and ground water may be contaminated. We use the "flush-and-forget" system, polluting millions of gallons of clean water. This water-based, disposal system wastes both water and any nutrients that may be harvested from sewage. For example, an Indian family of five produces 250 liters of excrement a year and uses 150,000 liters of water to wash it away. Now this is an inglorious topic, but in a world that is seriously running out of clean water, this is a huge issue! The alternative is dry-composting toilets which are being used in apartment buildings in Sweden, in residences in the United States and in villages in China. If these toilets are maintained properly, they are odorless and yield a useful compost at the end of the process! When sewage is not included in waste water (black water), the "grey water" (from washing, drinking etc.) may be recycled indefinitely. Orange County, California, and South Florida have these systems in place. Of course, conserving water is always imperative. Water-efficient appliances, toilets, showerheads, etc. are also ways to conserve water.
In most cities, food is trucked in from hundreds of miles away. The quality of food suffers in the transport, and gasoline is guzzled by the trucks moving the food. However, this waste is changing. "In 2005, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that urban and peri-urban farms, those within or immediately adjacent to a city, supply food to some 700 million urban residents worldwide. These are mostly small plots in vacant lots, yards, even on rooftops." (158) In cities around the world, urban farmers are growing fresh fruits and vegetables and even fresh fish, in ecologically safe fish ponds! We can see this production in our own area with the growth of local farmers' markets. Gardens not only produce healthful, local foods but also contribute to mental and physical health, community bonding and beautifying neighborhoods.

In many parts of the world, cities are being modified to be places of human and natural beauty instead of eye sores. Some cities are being created literally from the ground up to be models of green community and renewable energy. There are many exciting initiatives that craft healthier, human urban environments. I think this creativity is what I found so exciting about the chapter. Human creativity and ingenuity can improve urban environments. Taking environmentally friendly actions lead to a better quality of life, not to deprivation. Humans don't need to do the same self-defeating, nature-destroying things. "Greening" our cities will improve human health, reconnect us with nature and improve air, water and soil quality for all species in and around cities! When we humans remember that we are part of the web of life and consider our ecosystems in planning and building, the results may be a celebration of life for the whole bioregion!