The trouble with cities

Cities are a huge problem, environmentally. In order to sustain their hundreds of thousands or millions of inhabitants, they require massive “imports” of everything from food and fuel to construction and manufacturing raw materials, manufactured goods, electricity and water, often from hundreds of kilometres away.

In return they literally generate mountains of solid waste as well as air, soil and water pollution. New York City, for instance, produces some 13 000 tons of trash every 24 hours, while Seattle – considered one of the greenest cities in America – “exports” a mile-long train filled with garbage to Oregon daily.

But you don’t have to look overseas to get a sense of the problem. The ecological footprint of Cape Town - the approximate area of land necessary to supply the city’s resources and absorb its waste - is nearly twice the size of the Western Cape and the average Capetonian is responsible for around 900kg of solid waste annually. While there have been some positive developments in local cities, such as the long-awaited prospect of improved public transport and new infrastructure for non-motorised vehicles, others, such as the ever increasing number of lanes being added to city highways, have merely served to enable our bad habits.

The bottom line is that most cities function in a way that is not sustainable in the long run. The magnitude of the crisis is put into sharp focus when one considers that worldwide, more people now live in cities than in rural areas.

There have been many responses attempting to remedy the situation. Individual actions, like moving your family to the countryside for a more sustainable lifestyle, although well-intended, mostly amount to a form of escapism that is not a feasible option for the vast majority of city dwellers. While governments have failed to counter the powerful economic forces that drive urbanisation, what we really need to do is find ways to make our cities themselves more resilient and ecologically viable.

On the high-tech end of the spectrum there is Masdar City, a new, walled development on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Designed to house 40 000 people by 2016, this “city of the future” will be powered entirely by renewable energy sources, replace all fossil fuel vehicles with a public transport system of driverless electric “pod cars” and get its water from a solar-powered desalination plant. For most of the planet’s cash-strapped cities, ultra-expensive blank-slate futurism of this kind will never be a financially practicable alternative.

To my mind, one of the most sophisticated responses to the urban sustainability crisis has come from the so-called Transition Town Movement. This grassroots initiative driven by groups of citizen-activists originated in the UK and has developed a number of very impressive tools, including ways to drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the establishment of local currencies and fostering local food self-sufficiency. The movement has, however, found most of its footholds in small towns, rather than cities and in South Africa it is still very much in its infancy.

Many cities, including Cape Town, have officially made a “zero waste” pledge of some sort, committing themselves to reducing the amount of solid refuse sent to landfill sites to an absolute minimum. South Africans currently dump approximately 15 million tons of domestic waste in municipal landfills annually.

Any significant reduction in this would make a difference, but progress has been slow. It’s hard to understand why? How difficult, for example, can it be to:

- make manufacturers and retailers responsible for reducing and recycling waste and packaging and encourage the use of non-toxic, biodegradable and recyclable materials wherever possible;

- make recycling of glass, paper, cardboard, plastics, metal, construction and demolition waste, e-waste, etc mandatory for businesses and private households, supported by weekly municipal recyclable waste collection and processing;

- ban the sale of unrecyclable products such as Styrofoam and plastic bags and bottles; and

- provide composting workshops for citizens and weekly municipal collection and processing of compostable waste.

Ultimately what’s required is an integrated ecological approach to all of the waste and resource streams involved in sustaining our cities. And soon - lest we bury ourselves in our own effluents.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

Send your comments to Andreas

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