Urban Environmentalism: Exploring Current Issues in Governance, Philosophy, and Sustainability

The great paradox of urban environmentalism is that while cities are responsible for a large majority of environmental ills, the focus of environmental perceptions tends to be on non-urban areas. Cities are largely the contexts for air, aquatic, and land pollution in conjunction with other forms of ecological neglect. As cities are wholly bound to economic growth, urban governance must reconcile profitability with sustainability. In essence, the future of America’s cities will be determined by the efficacy of urban, environmental policy, and the future of the planet will be determined by international, urban-rooted initiatives.

In terms of discourse and political rhetoric, the crux of the environmental question is inherently flawed. The world becomes more urban, while environmental interests become more non-urban (Platt 9). Images of wide-open spaces, rushing rivers, and pristine mountain ranges pepper the scholarly landscape of environmental philosophy, while cityscapes conversely connote pollution and ecological offense. Inevitably, the opposition of philosophical attention to urban environmental policy creates extreme ignorance toward the ability of cities to truly become ecologically responsible. In essence, there is a dangerous tendency to dismiss the efficacy of urban, environmental policy, but policies that are rooted in cities are the only policies that can enhance the sustainability of the human race.

Urban Environmentalism

Unquestionably, cities are inextricably bound to environmental offenses. Since the dawn of the industrial age, the sustainability of business has taken precedence over the sustainability of the Earth. Cities are the contexts of industrialization, and by extension the contexts of ecological irresponsibility. Whether or not humanity can reconcile economic growth with environmental ethics will determine the future of both cities as well as the world at large.

The Dominance of Industry over the Environment

Urban areas developed in direct conjunction with environmental ignorance; however, cities, as simply population-concentrated locales, are not solely to blame. Environmental irresponsibility is neither a geographic problem nor a human problem; it is wholly and deeply entrenched in contemporary culture.

Modern, industrialized nations are nearly all linked, in one way or another, to the European imperialism and subsequent colonization that drove exploration between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an effort to own as many raw materials as possible, as prompted by the dominant, economic theory of mercantilism, nations feverishly and grossly colonized countries that were deemed as primitive. Author Brian Norton, in his article entitled “Population and Consumption”, writes that “the technologically advanced culture destroys the less technologically advanced culture;… in the process, original cultures of great complexity and antiquity are fragmented and eventually destroyed. Members of these original societies are not really offered a choice; they can be assimilated, or die” (26). Ironically, these peoples who were perceived as primitive were almost unwaveringly environmentally conscious.

For contemporary society, there is renewed recognition that the human role needs to redefined to resemble that of the cultures that were all-but destroyed centuries ago. Native Americans, for example, believed, and indeed still believe, that the survival of humanity depends on that of the land. By disregarding local ecosystems- be they urban, suburban, or rural, the broader context of the Earth’s ecosystem is also endangered. Alternatively, by disregarding animals, waters, and air, the human species is also severely threatened.

To exemplify the results of a failed ability to reconcile product with land, the enigmatic mystery of Easter Island serves as a relevant microcosm of Earth’s possible destiny. The Polynesian people of Easter Island flourished until sometime during the late Middle Ages when the entire society of the 63 square-mile island dissolved. Ironically, all that remains of the once-great culture is the very catalyst of its destruction. Though the precise purpose of the immense statues that still line the coast of Easter Island is unknown, it was their construction, or more specifically their transportation, that led to the island’s demise (Roberts 46). In an effort to move the multi-ton statues from the Island’s center to its coast, a systematic deforestation of the island was undertaken. The construction of rollers detrimentally destroyed the trees of Easter Island, leading to soil infertility and the inability to construct effective housing. Author Jane Roberts, in her text simply but appropriately entitled Environmental Policy, explains how truly relevant the Easter Island example is to the modern environmental question:

Against great odds the islanders painstakingly constructed, over many centuries, one of the most advanced societies of its type in the world. For a thousand years they sustained a way of life in accordance with an elaborate set of social and religious customs that allowed them not only to survive but to flourish. It was in many ways a triumph of human ingenuity and an apparent victory over a difficult environment. But in the end the increasing number and cultural ambitions of the islanders proved too great for the limited resources available to them. When the environment was ruined by the pressure, the society very quickly collapsed with it, leading to a state of near barbarism (46).

The people of Easter Island destroyed their environment- and with it their culture and their society, for the sake of a product. Their society was one thousand years old. Modern society, arguably, is much younger.

An unfortunate and salient difference between the Easter Island ecocide and the potential environmental destruction by modern day industrialism is that the population of the Polynesian island neither knew nor understood what they were doing. Contemporary society, conversely, knows exactly the effects it is having on the Earth, yet fails to effectively act. An even grosser manifestation of ignorance, modern society knows exactly what to do to fix the problem, yet still fails to act.

There is a true and urgent need to politically, philosophically, and culturally redefine the human role. Economic profits cannot justify environmental ignorance, and cities, as the proverbial ground-zero for ecological ills, will need to actively combat the tendency to perceive urban, environmental policy as ineffective. In order for urban governance to foster environmental responsibility in a way that the sustainability of cities can be ensured without causing further ecological damage, the problems of air, aquatic, and land pollution must be politically addressed.

Governance and Sustainability

Though population growth is inherent to environmental offenses, it is not solely responsible for all environmental damage. The overcrowding of urban areas undoubtedly catalyzes pollution in its multiplicity of forms, but the true culprits of ecological responsibility are corporations. Urban governance, by extension, must address economic growth as not automatically existing in opposition to environmental responsibility.

The Smart Growth Movement

Garnering support from a multiplicity of supporters, the smart growth movement seeks to balance economy with environment within the urban context (Baker 26). However, the movement is still failing to gain momentum. In her article entitled “The Fast Moving Fight to Stop Urban Sprawl”, author Linda Baker writes that “for all the talk about urban growth boundaries, anti-growth measures and preservation of open space, the effort to get bills passed and enforced still confounds plenty of communities across the country. Urban planners wax poetic about downtown revitalization and high-density development, but proliferating "sprawl cities" show just how hard it will be to reverse dominant trends” (26). Deeply entrenched are political attitudes toward feverish growth, many of which are wholly reminiscent of the European imperialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the imperialism which was the birthing ground for environmental neglect in the first place.

Pollution and the systematic destruction of “greenspace” are politically perceived as the justifiable cost of prosperity, as if the trend toward environmental destruction is somehow natural or inevitable. Smart growth, as a generalized, umbrella policy, must address issues of pollution and conservation in a way that considers the plight of urbanity without perpetuating environmental neglect; this is the crux of the urban dilemma. In essence, there is a political perception that smart growth is an impossibility (Baker 26). The assumption that urban environmentalism is somehow a contradiction in terms is at the root of the looming ecocide.

Pollution and Climate Change in Urban Areas

Rooted in carbon emissions, global warming is on the verge of catalyzing an irrevocable change in Earth’s climate. Author Sue Grimmond, in her article entitled “Urbanization and Global Environmental Change” writes that “urban areas are the major sources of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for heating and cooling; from industrial processes; transportation of people and goods, and so forth…. more than 90% of anthropogenic carbon emissions are generated in cities” (85). By extension, policies that fail to truly address the emission of greenhouse gases are ineffectual, at best.

There is a danger in the tendency to politically focus on urban residents as the root of the problem, as this negates the role played by corporate, ecological irresponsibility. While emissions from cars and trucks play an undoubted role in urban warming, those cars are driven by employees to and from work and those trucks are transporting products. Business is at the heart of the problem. In his text simply entitled Air Pollution, author Jeremy Colls writes that “air pollution has been with us since the first fire was lit, although different aspects have been important at different times. In urban areas, high concentrations of gases and particles from coal combustion… have produced severe loss of air quality and significant health effects. On a regional scale, tropospheric ozone formation and acid deposition have been the major threats” (xvii). The combined offense of urban pollution is threatening the global, ecological system, as well as the more immediate health of the human race.

Los Angeles, California has been the first city to politically recognize that pollution is actually detrimental to economic growth. Economic expansion in Los Angeles during the mid-twentieth century brought with it unprecedented levels of air pollution. The problem was so acute that economic growth was halted by health problems. The city’s solution was strict policies that regulated corporate emissions. More saliently, policies during the latter half of the twentieth century began to effectively address public education regarding the both economic as well as healthful impact of pollution (Gonsalez 213).

Pollution and Health in Urban Areas

While the ecological impact of pollution is largely invisible, dangerous emissions manifest visually in terms of human health. Pregnant women in urban areas have an elevated risk of having a child with birth defects. Again in Los Angeles, a study scientifically correlated levels of carbon with birth defects; in areas with high levels of carbon pollution, the risk of birth defects tripled (“Urban Air”, Author Unknown, 47).

Additionally, other vulnerable populations are the elderly and the socioeconomically challenged (Buzelli 195, Clougherty 1140). Urban warming, as a microcosm of global warming, is catalyzing dangerous heat waves that threaten populations that are physically and financially unprepared to deal with rising temperatures. In turn, the increased use of air conditioning causes a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and the cycle is perpetuated endlessly and disastrously (Grimmond 85).

Proposing Solutions: The Role of Urban Governance in Global Environmentalism

The tendency to perceive the policies of one city or one nation as ineffectual to the global problem prompts political and cultural apathy toward the environmental issue. While international collaboration between urban initiatives would be ideal, single cities can catalyze true change as well. Cities are climate-changers, and the successful efforts of one city, particularly the big offenders such as New York, Paris, and Beijing, would make significant strides toward preserving the Earth as a whole.

International Collaboration

World population tripled during the twentieth century. Author Rutherford Platt, in his text entitled The Ecological City, writes that “while it took all of human history until about 1850 to reach one billion, it only took twelve years ( 1975-87) to move from four to five billion people. Even if projected rates of growth decline as expected, the earth's population will double to ten billion by about 2050” (1). Half of the world’s population resides in urban areas (Platt 1). If a multinational effort to address urban environmentalism could be effective, the environmental problem would undoubtedly be solved.

The problem with initiatives such as The Kyoto Protocol is that while they address the offenses of industrialized nations, and by extension attempt to control those offenses, they do not address the ills of nations that are labeled as “developing”. China, for example, was exempt from The Kyoto Protocol because it was perceived to be a developing nation; yet, China rivals the United States in its carbon emissions (Mangun 238). International collaboration on urban, environmental agendas is a truly complex problem. In many ways, by focusing on international efforts, the attention is taken away from the much-need local initiatives.

Localized Efforts

The policies of single-cities can indeed make a difference. Effective efforts would address the high consumption of energy by corporations as well as pollution and the production of other wastes. Urban policies have the ability to mandate the actions of local businesses, and ignoring this power is wholly ignorant (Bukeley 171). Effective policies would control corporate offenses and boost community education regarding recycling, energy consumption, and other “green” practices. Cities are not responsible for the cultural disregard for the environment, but they are the places in which both the problem as well as the solution can be found.


The impact of urban environmental policies on the greater, global ecosystem is indeed vast and complex; however, the greatest concern for cities is how to reconcile economic growth with environmental sustainability. By recognizing that no monetary gains are worth the ecological expense, governing officials can ensure that companies do not endanger the environment in favor of profits.

There is a definite obstacle in the social tendency to perceive urban as somehow incondusive to nature. Author Rutherford Platt, in his text entitled The Ecological City writes that “urbanization, in the traditional view, destroys natural phenomena and processes, demanding inputs drawn from elsewhere to replace and augment local resources. The ecological impacts of urbanization are experienced far beyond the urban fringe... They extend to surrounding agricultural lands, to distant rivers and their watersheds…to the oceans where wastes are dumped, and to the atmosphere” (11). However, the role of the city can also be perceived differently.

Cities are meccas for sociocultural evolution. They can be the locales for liberal attitudes and progressive ideals. Political movements are birthed and implemented in cities. Urbanity is a breeding ground for critical thought and practical action. Global, environmental consciousness does not exist without cities. By extension, no environmental movement can be successful without substantial consideration afforded to urban areas. In this way, cities do not exist in opposition to nature, but, conversely, are the very locales in which nature will be protected.

Works Cited

Bulkeley, Harriet, and Michele M. Betsill. Cities and Climate Change: Urban Sustainability and Global Environmental Governance. London: Routledge.

Buzzelli, Michael, and Michael Jerrett. "Geographies of Susceptibility and Exposure in the City: Environmental Inequity of Traffic-Related Air Pollution in Toronto/Les Geographies De Susceptibilite et D'exposition Dans la Ville L'injustice De L'environnement De Pollution De L'air Concernant la Circulation a Toronto." Canadian Journal of Regional Science 30.2: 195+.

Clougherty, Jane E., et al. "Synergistic Effects of Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Exposure to Violence on Urban Asthma Etiology." Environmental Health Perspectives 115.8: 1140+.

Colls, Jeremy. Air Pollution. New York: Spon Press.

Mangun, William R., and Daniel H. Henning. Managing the Environmental Crisis: Incorporating Competing Values in Natural Resource Administration. 2nd Rev. ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murray, Geoffrey, and Ian G. Cook. Green China : Seeking Ecological Alternatives /. New York: Routledge.

Gonzalez, George A. "Urban Growth and the Politics of Air Pollution: The Establishment of California's Automobile Emission Standards." Polity 35.2: 213+.

Grimmond, Sue. "Urbanization and Global Environmental Change: Local Effects of Urban Warming." The Geographical Journal 173.1: 83+.

Platt, Rutherford H., Rowan A. Rowntree, and Pamela C. Muick, eds. The Ecological City: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Roberts, Jane. Environmental Policy. New York: Routledge.

"Urban Air Pollution Linked to Birth Defects." Journal of Environmental Health 65.2: 47+.