Humans like vilifying cities. Many claim that they harm our mental health, make us stupid and even that they disproportionately hurt the environment. Cities are often painted as the antithesis to nature. In other words, we see cities as fundamentally unnatural. Such opinions have been the cause of white flight to the suburbs, resulting in urban sprawl as well as de facto racial and economic segregation in our cities.
Viewing cities as unnatural also guides modern environmentalism. Efforts toward conservation are often focused on external environments, not on the environments where many humans “live, work, and play.” Most know about the tragic Australian wildfires, the burning of the Amazon and movements to save the oceans and save the pandas.
While important, that focus on “pristine” environments can be dangerous. Often, it means that we overlook tragedies that are happening in our own backyards. 40% of Americans regularly breathe unclean air. Additionally, more than 50 million Americans — disproportionately minorities and the poor — live within three miles of an environmentally contaminated site. Because we like to separate nature and cities, urban environments are often viewed as lost causes. Those who are able to leave cities flee to the suburbs, and those who cannot are left behind to face chronic pollution, disinvestment and mistreatment.
So, it’s time we amend this view that cities are unnatural. Social scientist David Harvey rightfully claims that there is nothing about cities that is fundamentally unnatural. Many social animals, like humans, live in “cities” built with surrounding nature: beavers, termites, meerkats, ants and various birds are just a few examples. We certainly consider their cities to be natural, and we should do the same with our own.
Furthermore, cities are more sustainable than we like to think. In fact, in per capita terms, urbanites often emit much less carbon than rural dwellers. This is mainly because urbanites often share walls with neighbors — which reduces the energy needed for climate control — have less distance to travel to destinations and rely less on cars to get around.
For cities to reach their full potential as healthy, natural hubs for human society, smart planning is needed. Toxic facilities must be removed from the proximity of humans and be prevented from coming back. Cities must be made walkable and offer public transport to reduce reliance on cars. Amenities, work and housing must all be available in close proximity to allow community bonds to flourish. But, the first step to all of this is acknowledging that cities are natural. Cities are neither bad nor antithetical to nature, and the humans in them deserve that recognition.
Sam Smith is a junior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.