Dear Economist: Are Cities Environmentally Sound?

The Financial Times suddenly has seen fit to offer Tim Harford’s weekly economics column in the U.S. Saturday edition.  Here is last week’s sample:

Dear Economist: I am worried about the damage we wreak on our planet, and I want to do my bit to reduce my personal environmental impact.  I was thinking of moving to the country and living a more self-sufficient life.  But is there a better way?  Jocelyn Hathaway, London

Dear Jocelyn,

You should ask yourself, rather, if there is a worse way.  London may not appear to be the model of sustainble development, but it is an organic commune compared with what would happen if the other 7m inhabitants selfishly decided to move to the country.

Tightly packed, rich cities such as London are easily the most environmentally friendly way to enjoy modern life.  Wealthy people squeeze into cozy apartments…Denser cities mean more efficient transport.  Only 10 percent of commutes into central London take place in cars.

Manhattan, the densest and richest city of all, was recently described in The New Yorker magazine as "a utopian environmentalist community" and it is vastly more energy-efficient, per person, than any of the 50 American states.

My advice is to forget all this self-centred nonsense about moving to the country.  Instead, you should put double-glazing in your flat, travel to work by bike and relax in the smug knowledge that you are living in one of the greenest cities on the planet.

Of course a full assessment must also include the dependence of cities on the surrounding countryside, and vice versa.  Cities both spur and reflect economic growth, which puts pressure on aggregate resources.  Nonetheless this answer remains a useful corrective to urban whinging.  The real question is when the FT will put Harford’s column on-line to non-subscribers…


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