Are Cities Green, Or Are We Just Pigs in a Factory Farm?


Every year the Trudeau Foundation holds a conference around an idea; this year the theme was about cities, about rethinking the urban commons. While issues of governance, homelessness and immigration were discussed, much attention was paid to the greening of cities. The speakers and guests were a mix of politicians, policy wonks, philosophers and professors, with a sprinkling of architects and planners.

Kicking off the morning session of the conference was John Robinson of the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability, who set the environmental tone.

John Robinson calls himself an optimist. He is happy to report that the world's population will probably top out at 9.3 billion people in 2065, 50% more than there are now. The good news is that it will stabilize; the bad is that we have to build out to accommodate them, and that we are going to get used to the end of growth, to an ageing population, that we are going to all be like Japan. After all that optimism, he listed ten challenges:

  • Air quality
  • water
  • energy
  • land use
  • transportation
  • housing
  • jobs
  • health care
  • climate
  • waste

Oh, and we have to ensure that global emissions peak in six years, that we have to limit global temperature rise to 2.5 degrees, which he acknowledges is an impossible task. And public education doesn't work, it just induces apathy and denial. Internationally, there is deadlock; Nationally, there is waste and petty politics. But at the cities level, stuff happens. That is where people are making changes that matter.


One example Robinson used was Chicago's Go to 2040 campaign, which used Metroquest, "a real-life version of SimCity" that "allows communities to play games with their own future, see the consequences and choose - collectively - what is most important to them." Try it out here.

However not all the of the smart people in the room were on the dais. Bill Rees is an ecologist with the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning, and he is no optimist.

Rees noted that all of this talk about high density cities being green and sustainable is simply not true, that only 1/4 of 1% of our footprint is in the city where we live. We are ignoring the food, energy and materials that come into the city to support us, and the waste that goes out. Every American in fact has a footprint of seventeen acres of land for food production and waste removal.

He used the analogy that we are like pigs in a factory farm, packed in tight while the corn that feeds the pigs comes from all over the country and the waste that the pigs make is spread over the landscape. I interviewed him about this.

Bill Rees at Sustainable Cities Conference from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

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