Cities and Environment Essay

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Nearly half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. Over the next quarter-century virtually all population growth will be in urban areas in less-developed countries. The environmental consequences of urban growth are considerable. Cities are prolific users of natural resources and generators of waste. They produce most of the greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change. They often also degrade local water quality, deplete aquifers, pollute the marine environment, foul the air and consume the land. Several movements are being organized today, some sponsored by the United Nations, to change city planning to address these concerns, to create “green cities.”

Cities are places of concentrated human habitation. People live on almost all of the islands and continents of the world except for inhabitable places, such as Antarctica and some very small islands. In many places there are still nomads, such as the Laps and Eskimos in the Arctic, or the Bedouin in the Sahara or Arabia, or the nomads in Mongolia or India in contrast to whom are the teeming billions who live in the cities of the world.

Vast numbers of people have throughout history lived on farms and in small towns or villages; but it is in cities that most of the great achievements of human history have been accomplished, and it is in cities that ever greater numbers of human beings now live. Cities began in ancient times not long after the development of agriculture made permanent settlements possible. The first cities were in the river valleys of the Nile, Indus, Tigris, and the Yangze, among others. By modern standards these cities were usually small, although some did reach populations of over 100,000 people.

Cities have been places where humans were able to cultivate innumerable trades, crafts and practices because of the leisure that city life has afforded. Often the building of cities has meant the mining or quarrying of vast quantities of building materials. In some places these have left quarries that later filled with water or catacombs, such as those under Rome. In Rome, Paris, and other places these artificial caves have provided a place for burying the dead.

In order to build cities, supply them with goods and water, to defend them and to make them livable, architectural spaces were designed to provide water, sheltered spaces for worship, or for homes. Defenses for cities have included more than military defenses. Some cities are located in areas prone to flooding, while others experience regular threats from storms or freezing weather.

Defenses against the ravages of nature are just a part of the building concerns of city officials. In addition to aqueducts to supply water, and the establishment of marketplaces, such as the famous Agora in ancient Athens, people have found that they needed roads between cities and streets within. In the cities of world it has been necessary to provide clean sanitation facilities. In some cities, public baths have been built and used by the population. Marketplaces, water supplies, sanitation, are all necessary as are homes, open spaces and places of recreation or entertainment. In the Greek city-states an amphitheater was considered a necessity of the city. Gymnasiums were also a feature that has been adopted in modern cities.

Historically most cities have been located at ports, at river crossings, at sources of water, at crossroads or even at sacred sites. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution new industrial cities in Europe sprang up near coal supplies or on the fall lines of rivers, where water power could be used by damming local streams. With great improvements in sanitation and food production the population increased and with it the environmental impact of cities as they occupied ever more surrounding lands. At the same time urbanization also meant the abandonment of the countryside by increasing numbers of people.

Industrial cities at first were crowded, unsanitary and uninviting as increasing numbers of people were forced to earn a living working in factories. City planners, working with city administrators, helped to create clean, livable cities, but at times to the great disruption of large numbers of people.

In the 20th century urbanization so increased that cities became metropolises. After World War II, improved transportation allowed people to move to the suburbs in search of a taste of rural life, while remaining close to a city. As millions abandoned farms, vast rural areas returned to nature; but many rural areas have been re-occupied by suburbs, vacation homes and other luxury dwellings. The environmental impact of modern urban growth and sprawl has been increasingly destructive.

Around the world, mega-cities with populations of close to or more than 20 million people have sprung up since the end of World War II. Cities such as Mexico City, Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Lagos, Bombay and many others now are in this category. They present enormous challenges to city planners and administrations in the effort to create clean, safe, and wholesome living spaces that are sustainable in their environments.


  1. Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: A Compact History (University of Chicago Press, 2006);
  2. Matthew E. Kahn, Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment (Brookings Institution Press, 2006);
  3. William Lucy and David L. Phillips, Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs (American Planning Association, 2006);
  4. Voula Mega, Sustainable Development, Energy and the City: A Civilization of Concepts and Actions (Springer-Verlag, 2005);
  5. Kris Olds, Globalization and Urban Change: Capital, Culture, and Pacific Rim Mega-Projects (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  6. James B. Pick and Edgar W. Butler, Mexico Megacity (Perseus Publishing, 1999).

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