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Cities: Salvation Or Infestation?

Aerial view over the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Central Park in July 2007.
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images

Last week I completed my series on physics and cities for the NPR Cities Project and, in the process, managed to piss off a more than a few people.

The problem, in their eyes was my use of a simple metaphor: cities as an infestation. In their eyes I was a city hater, an anti-civilization tree hugger, a Birkenstock-wearing, back-to-nature, tofu-eating, Luddite. No matter that I'm a native of the greatest damn metropolitan hub on the planet (that's right, New York, I am looking at you!), somehow my use of that image meant I was blind to the virtues of cities.

So I thought I would set the record straight, not about how much I love cities but about the basic idea behind the piece. Here is the question: Is a sustainable high tech culture possible and, if so, what does it look like?

There are lots of ways to formulate an answer: policy, politics, population etc. But for me there is a different perspective that shifts the emphasis entirely. What happens if we look at the history of life in the context of the history of the planet as a whole? The problem of sustainability is, after all, inherently taken from a planetary perspective.

By looking at the history of life and the planet together we see how biotic activity can change its own planetary environment. The early forms of Earth's life were anaerobic bacteria, creatures that could not survive in an oxygen-rich environment. But, through their own activity, that is exactly what was created. All that oxygen forced them, literally, from the Earth's surface. So, from these microbe's perspective, their own population growth might have appeared to be an infestation – i.e. they were overrunning the planet in numbers or quantities large enough to be harmful, threatening or obnoxious.

Which brings us around to cities. Some time around 6,000 years ago (give or take a few) we began organizing ourselves into a city building species. The agricultural revolution, 5-6,000 years previous to that, had made food surpluses possible. Cities were the cultural revolution that made effective use of those surpluses. Since then cities have been the engine of our greatest achievements, the cauldron of our most fecund flights of imagination and the test beds for our most daring innovations.

The steady, relentless push into cities was wildly accelerated with the birth of industry and our discovery of fossil fuels. Now urban complexes ring our continents and the shift of humans from rural to city life continues apace.

So what's the problem? Well, it can be stated pretty simply. There are lots of lines of evidence telling us the current model for cities is unsustainable. Climate change and the stresses it its likely to exert on our economies is the most obvious example of how are current model fails. But does that mean cities themselves are the problem and we should all move back to the farm?

Of course not.

What it means is we have to rethink how cities work and this is where it gets exciting. Urban agriculture and rooftop farms could be part of the solution. There are proposals to make buildings more like plants so that they can get everything they need right where they sit. There are opportunities for using Big Data to make urban energy consumption hyper efficient. In a thousand-thousand ways — some big and some small — there are opportunities to reimagine how cities work and how we work within them. That is pretty awesome.

With seven billion people and counting, it is likely that the density and efficiencies cities enable might be our only hope for a vibrant, high-tech and sustainable civilization. And with 70 percent of the world's population expected to move into cities by 2050, do we really have any choice?

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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