November 18, 2005 - From the November, 2005 issue

The Modern Ark: With Good, Green Design, Cities Will Ensure Survival of Human Race

Entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken is one of the nation's leading spokespeople for an enlightened relationship between commerce and the environment. His vision of "natural capitalism" entails cooperation between business and civil society to not only find solutions to the world's environmental problems but also to, in turn, profit from those solutions and thereby create a sustainable economy and ecosystem. Hawken recently spoke at the Urban Land Institute fall meeting in Los Angeles, and, in the following excerpted speech, he describes the central role that cities play in ensuring the survival of the human species and the planet. With a tone of true optimism, he calls on ULI's members -developers, builders, and designers-to embrace their opportunity to create a healthy built environment that will, in turn, sustain a healthy natural environment.

Paul Hawken

I accepted ULI's offer to speak today because I feel that ULI has a particularly important role to play going forward in the world. I am not saying this to flatter you but more to make a request of you. I believe that there is today a remarkable convergence occurring today between cities, commerce, and what is called civil society. And I think we're beginning to see what I would call a collective vision that is beyond the grasp of any one individual or group. It's about overlooking the myriad social and environmental problems that are coming right at us.

I think we can now talk about the future environmental crises as something that is surmountable and transformable. There is a need for re-imagining our relationship to each other, to business, and of course to government . . . . In a sense we're in a world beset by pessimism. It is not caused by wars, terrorism, natural disaster, or the general ineptitude of large government. But the fact is that this worst-case thinking is verging on conventional wisdom.

And as we know from experience, conventional wisdom is usually just conventional. It is not wise. In fact, it is often very wrong. When Paul Erlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, he wrote, "a cancer in an uncontrolled multiplication of cells. The population explosion is the uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually, they die, often horribly . . . only radical surgery can ensure our survival." He goes on to predict mass starvation and death.

What happens when you look back at the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, every single prediction about what would happen with population is wrong. Nobody got it right. Something is happening. It was a lot of hard work by a lot of smart people, but I think other factors are at play. What happened instead? Birth rates declined. In the developing world, they are 1.6 children per woman, and the developing world now it's three. Given existing trends, population will peak sometime just after the middle of the century, and then it will begin to draw down.

One of the reasons population has declined is because of cities. People are leaving the country where children are an asset, and they're going to the city where too many children are a liability. Virtually all of the increase in human population that will occur in the next 40 or 50 years will occur in urban areas. For example, in 2004 the population increased by 76 million, 3 million in the so-called developed world and 73 million in the developing world. But of those 73 million, 64 million live in urban areas.

200 years ago only 3 percent of the population was urban, 100 years ago it was 14 percent, in 1950 still 2/3 of the world's population lived outside cities, and by 2030 61 percent of the population, according to the U.N., will live in urban areas. As we speak, over one million people are migrating to cities. In China over 200 million will be moving to cities in the next few decades. And as some of you know, China cannot build cities fast enough.

Now, when people move to cities, birth rates almost always fall below replacement level. There are four great birth control methods in the world. The first is to empower and educate women, the second is give them an opportunity, the third is to provide universal health care, and the fourth one is to move to cities. We never hear about that one, but it's one of the best birth control methods there is. The whole dynamic changes and shifts. And in this migration there is a kind of collective wisdom that leads to thinking as a population, as a civilization. Cities are where people have the lowest ecological footprint. Density is our environmental ally. It's so interesting because when you look back at the 70s, it was like, oh, we must move to the country! Wrong. Build a rain cellar! Wrong. Move to the cities. Move to Chicago. Move to Mumbai. It is really what we have to do collectively.

We can see the cities as ecological sinks sucking up resources, and they can do that. But we can also see them as a kind of collective ecological ark, the place where we will go for the next 100 years and hang out while population peaks and begins to go down. How extraordinary. No one made this happen. No one ever said it would be our best long-term strategy for survival and well-being. But that's exactly what happened. Again, conventional wisdom.

But when people go to cities to start a better life, most do not find it initially. Overwhelmingly new urbanites arrive in slums and squatter settlements. Squatters are people who have no title to land, and that's about 1/3 of the urban population today, about a billion people. By 2050 three billion people in cities will be squatters. As a Nigerian chief once said, if you don't share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you. We normally think of greening of cities in terms of transport, parks, trees, traffic calming, energy, water use, material infrastructure. All true. But for the bulk of humanity, the path will lead through the valley of impoverishment and disenfranchisement. This worldwide diaspora of immigrants, refugees in urban slums is growing fast . . . .


People are trying to improve their lives. Civil society, as big as it is, as rapidly growing as it is, cannot do this alone. It can only build so much social capital. It is business that has the capital and the resources to make the really big changes that are required. NGOs can call for renewable energy, but they cannot build wind farms. They can call for sustainable cities, but they cannot build them. I believe there is a sea-change coming in the world economy. Until now, business has always tried to externalize their costs, but now they're doing a 180. You could say that sustainability is about complete internalization of costs. . . . Wal-Mart has pledged to seek 100 percent renewable energy. Five years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Companies are becoming a critical source of change and innovation on environmental issues.

Now, this comes back to you. What is ULI? Well, you design, create, and build cities. You are, whether you know it or not, an NGO. You just happen to be huge, but you are a non-governmental organization. You're all leaders. The greening of cities is the greening of civilization. . . . We need to harness the internal dynamics of cooperating groups that work to promote common interests. This is not about trade-offs. It is about the intentional amplification of benefits. We are now starting to move towards some kind of convergence.

Sustainability is about the interrelationship between these two systems marks every person's existence and underlines the rise and fall of every civilization. While the word sustainability is relatively new, every culture has confronted this relationship for better or ill; it underlines the rise and fall of all civilizations. Historically, no civilization has reversed its tracks with respect to the environment but rather has declined and disappeared because it forfeited its own habitat. For the first time in history, a civilization – its people, companies, and governments – is trying to arrest this slide and understand how to live on earth. This is a watershed in human existence.

If we are to save what is wild, what is irreplaceable, what is majestic in nature, then, ironically, we have to turn to each other and take care all the human beings on earth. And there's no better place to do it than the cities. There's no boundary that can protect the environment from humanity. The fact is that I don't know of an organization that collectively holds more of the fate of the Earth in its hands than ULI. There are so many possibilities in your work. And I suggest to you that environmental and social issues are no longer just issues; they will define our civilization. I am asking you to do more. What you are doing is extraordinary.

Human agency will determine the fate for all living beings, because no corner of the planet is unaffected our activities. Despite the corruption and tragedy that we see in the headlines, humanity is a profoundly learning organism. Evolution doesn't depend on will; it is an unconscious process, and the goal of any organism is to make more of itself by whatever means possible. Good, green urban design will create the conditions in which human beings can make more of themselves.

And I'll close with this because I spend a lot of time outside and am always looking for metaphors. Perhaps the best way to understand this movement – and when I say movement, I'm including you – if you think of a piece of land that's been destroyed by fire or flood or human degradation, over time the integrity of the species and plants that were lost will reassert themselves. When forests burn, seeds dormant for years will germinate and burst into life. The older the forest, the more brilliant is its capacity to regenerate. Humanity is older than the oldest forest. And one thing we know about life is that life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. But not on purpose; it does it anyway.

What we are doing is, in a sense, on purpose. What green design is – what the greening of our cities is about – is creating the conditions that are conducive to life. And who better to do it than designers and builders?


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.