In the most recent Five Friday Facts, Justin provided information on the growth in cities outside the developed world. He points out that increasing populations pose challenges for sustainability. How can we support a global population in denser cities? The argument tends to go that cities are more sustainable since they use less land to provide habitation for people. Unfortunately, these people still consume (in developed countries at least) an inordinate amount of materials. The rise of collaborative consumption may help, but it only delays the inevitable.
I, sitting at my desktop, am not immune. While living in a 30-unit apartment building and “only” owning one car, my family does use fewer resources than if we were in a single family home (suburban, urban, or otherwise). However, there are now 30 families (probably 50 people) living in the space of what was former about three single family homes. That’s roughly 40 more people in a confined space. By building up (the structure is three stories) more people can fit in a smaller space.
The density achieved by apartments, condos, and townhomes means that people tend to use less energy (think heating and commuting) than they would if they lived further apart. However, the increase in population allows for ever greater numbers of people to inhabit a small space and import resources. I cannot, for one, grow my own food in my apartment. I do have a few plants, some of which are edible.
I think what it comes down to, other than behavior, is carrying capacity. How many people can the earth support? Also, what is the cultural carrying capacity (the number of people the earth can support given consumption patterns)? “Cultural capacity is inversely related to the (material) quality of life presumed.” In other words, the greater the consumption – or lifestyle – the fewer people can be supported. Makes sense. If we all consume like Americans, it doesn’t really matter where we live.