New York as a Model for the Study of Urbanization

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, for the first time in human history, more of the world’s population lives in cities than in rural areas. Increasing numbers of people live in huge mega-cities where human activities dominate the landscape and every local ecosystem. The continuing growth of these megalopolises has profound effects on local wildlife, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, air purity, and overall quality of life. Such cities also exert increasing pressure on the goods and services provided by all types of ecosystems for food, space, energy, and natural resources, on the entire planet. The urbanization of humanity is accelerating and by the middle of the current century two thirds of the global population will live in urban environments. Ten mega cities now have populations over 12 million, with Tokyo the largest (26 million) and the New York City Metropolitan Area 6th largest (17 million). Between 1990 and 2025, the number of people living in urban areas is projected to double to more than 5 billion with 90 percent of that increase to occur in developing countries. Mega cities take up ca. 2 percent of the world’s land area but they account for roughly 75 percent of industrial wood use, 60 percent of human water use, and nearly 80 percent of all human-produced carbon emissions. These figures suggest that the struggle to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy for the 21st century will be won or lost in the world's urban areas[1].[2]. New York City with the megalopolis surrounding the five boroughs is the largest conurbation in United States, and it will get larger, much larger. Thus, it is a good model for study of urbanization in general.

The continuing physical development of mega cities will profoundly impact both local and regional environments and place enormous strain on natural resources. The ecological foot print of cities is much larger than their structural area. On average, each person in the United States requires resources of all types representing 9.57 ha, while a typical African requires just 1 ha. Obviously, sustainability of growing urban populations will require increasing resources as represented by the ecological footprint. Concomitantly maintaining what we now consider to be an acceptable quality of life despite increases in populations within great cities will require substantial improvements in resource utilization (a decreasing per capita ecological footprint). The sustainability of great cities, their habitability, their political organization and power are all topics that are going to require new ideas and both economic and political innovation. New York City and the nation will need the best and the brightest of minds to think about this development and to come up with realistic, practical approaches to dealing with this inevitable growth. CUNY can help provide those minds.

Comprehensive, prospective thinking about the future of New York City cannot omit the role other great cities will play in shaping nearly every aspect of economic and political life for the world. From our professional perspectives, it seems clear to us that management of the urban environment and the process of urbanization is an intersection of environmental science and economics. Like it or not, competition for resources will impact us, as we see today in such diverse areas as the increased value of petroleum and concern over the pollutant assimilation capacity of the oceans and atmosphere. It is also clear that all areas of academic inquiry may be needed to help political systems chart our futures. To see where we are headed, we need retrospective analysis to understand lessons from the past, and to understand current trajectories and project them forward. We need the tools of ecological, economic and historical analysis to guide construction of linked models of both economic and environmental futures. We will need a much better understanding of the responses of ecosystems to anthropogenic assaults, including evaluation of their resiliencies and abilities to recover. A major issue will be how to set an agenda for research in these areas, how to establish priorities.

Nature, Resource Management and the Mega-City
The environmental problems of large urban areas affect the lives of increasing numbers of people throughout the world. Urban environmental managers are faced with many challenges because, unlike their less-dense suburban, rural, and natural counterparts, urban ecosystems are more profoundly affected and even controlled by human activities. This includes issues of runoff, waste disposal, transportation, manufacturing, air quality, and housing as well as economic, social, and cultural factors such as the gap between rich and poor, family size, immigration patterns, diverse ethnic and cultural populations, and the associated multiplicity of values. In a great city like New York, ecosystems in and around the city are subject to many forms of ecological stress. These stresses arise from many sources, for example, direct destruction due to land-use change, over use for fishing and recreation, urban and highway runoff, and contaminant deposition from the atmosphere. All of these impact the many fragmented ecosystems within and around the city and the habitats and biodiversity within them. Conversely, dense urban settings exert tremendous effects on the quality of people’s lives, including both mental and physical health, and the ability of the citizenry to interact with the natural environment is profoundly healthy.

Global-scale factors associated with population growth and energy use have dramatic effects at a local urban scale. Increasing population densities place great demands on urban infrastructure. Changes in economies and employment patterns alter residential and business usage and create pressure for development of open land. In addition, changes in the global climate system are anticipated that include increasing temperature, changes in precipitation and greater flooding due to increasingly frequent storms. Atmospheric deposition of pollutants from global sources, increased frequency of extreme weather events and rising sea level will impact soil and water, wetlands and shorelines, vegetation, and wildlife, all of which are features of urban ecosystems, in ways that greatly affect livability. Studies of New York’s ecosystems aimed at preserving, extending and improving them must consider these stresses.

In protecting the “natural” aspects of urban environments, policy issues such as urban planning, transportation, demographics, preservation of wetlands and other wildlife habitats, improvement of water quality, and restoration of contaminated areas, all become important. Since civic action to protect and enhance parks, wetlands and waters is a democratic process, public awareness and education are important factors. Urban natural areas are often in a state of precarious disequilibrium, requiring strategies that balance societal goals and economic interests with the need to shelter natural areas from over-exploitation and development. Guidance and examples are needed. New York City, as the world’s leading mega-city, can become a world-class environmental resource, supplying expertise, experience, and information to help an increasingly populated and urban world make decisions that benefit both people and nature.


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Thomas Strekas, Acting Director,
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