Big bad cities

The pun may have been weak, but the message behind WWF\’s headline (\”Cities need to green up their act\”) seemed pretty clear: cities are the problem.

WWF (formerly, and perhaps formally, known as The World Wildlife Fund) has come up with a catchy and polemically useful way of describing our ecological footprint – the amount of the earth\’s natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles and consumption patterns. We – in the UK – are living a \’three-planet lifestyle\’. That is, if the whole world were to live as we do, we would need three (or 3.1, to be precise) worlds to support us. That we are still alive is only thanks to people like the Indians, who make up for our profligacy by living a \’0.4-planet lifestyle\’.

The WWF report compares the performance of 60 British cities, and creates a ranking. Newport and Plymouth perform best, and Winchester comes off worst. So, these urban dens of eco-iniquity are dragging the rest of us down. Or are they? When you look at the figures again, it looks as if British cities are actually doing rather well: more than two thirds of them are performing better than the UK average. The press release seems to have forgotten to mention this.

This does not, of course, contradict WWF\’s main message, that we ought to consume and live more frugally and responsibly. Sure. But why are cities always the villains in this piece? In some ways (for example, sourcing food locally) it may be harder to live a one-planet lifestyle in a city. But Tesco\’s pandemic spread across the UK suggests that not everybody in rural areas shops locally, and in other arenas (public transport and higher density living) cities should have a natural advantage.

Asking how the green potential of cities could be better unlocked would be a constructive approach to this debate. But the green movement seems unable to move on from its utopian, pastoralist roots, regarding everything since the invention of the spinning jenny with deep suspicion. Green and pleasant land good; dark satanic mills bad.

Our cities may be part of the problem. But with a growing population, they will have to be the core of any solution.

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