Why the city just might be humanity’s greatest invention

Why the city just might be humanity’s greatest invention
Moving businesses to Huntly might reduce demand for houses in Auckland, but would you want to prevent the smart people you hire from running into intriguing strangers at parties?

Moving businesses to Huntly might reduce demand for houses in Auckland, but would you want to prevent the smart people you hire from running into intriguing strangers at parties? Rebekah White gets her Thoreau on.

Recently I found myself listening into a whole lot of smart people volleying back and forth solutions to Auckland’s lack of houses. Tax unoccupied bedrooms! Realign property ownership expectations! Encourage businesses to set up in other cities! Make Huntly an attractive place to live! At that point things got out of hand. Living in a city is something New Zealanders seem to do a bit grudgingly. Talk about ‘the good life’ and what springs to mind is more backyard jungle than urban jungle. This is how it goes: once we’ve done our time in the grey, asphalt-carpeted, belching city, we’ll earn a grassy sward of lawn, a chook or two and a veggie garden to procrastinate in while we’re working remotely.

This whole idea of getting back to the land as a way of leaving a lighter footprint on the earth was originally popularised by an American, Henry David Thoreau, or the patron saint of self-sufficient living. He built himself a cabin near Walden Pond in 1845 and thought and wrote an awful lot about the whole experience.

But it turns out that the Thoreau idyll of a low-impact life is a bit off the mark – or so says another American, this one still alive. Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser studied the carbon emissions of US households and discovered those who live in cities have a significantly lower impact than those live rurally. City-dwellers drive shorter distances (or not at all), have smaller homes, use less energy, and are easier to distribute stuff to.

But it isn’t efficiency that led Glaeser to describe the city as humanity’s greatest invention. “It plays to our ability to learn from one another,” he writes. Cities offer accessibility to experience. Things happen more in large cities. You run into more strangers. More smart people. More chances for collaboration. Moving businesses to Huntly might reduce demand for houses in Auckland, but would you want to prevent the smart people you hire from running into intriguing strangers at parties?

Cities also help keep the rest of the world looking gorgeous. The best way to screw up the natural world is to introduce humans. “We’re a destructive species – it’s one of our defining characteristics,” says Glaeser. “We’re much more likely to harm nature when we live surrounded by the woods than if we live in tall urban apartments by ourselves.” Thoreau discovered this first-hand; he once set 300 acres of woodland ablaze when a campfire he made to cook chowder got out of control. We might think we’re doing nature a favour by getting back to the land, but the land does a lot better without us. What have we got to offer it? Didymo, and cats.

Read Walden and you’ll discover that what Thoreau is preaching is the gospel of a well examined life, not an Amish one. A life where you’ve eradicated all the things you don’t actually need. And we do need cities – but the kind that don’t dissolve at the edges into limply connected suburbs. Take Hong Kong. What you don’t often hear about it is that 40 percent of its land is national park, and getting from high-rise surroundings to lost-in-the-jungle takes minutes. Land is occupied efficiently, vigorously – or not at all.

Studies show we need the natural world close by to feel good. Here, we can still head for the hills and feel far removed from our concrete playgrounds in less than an hour. It’s one of the great attributes New Zealand cities have – and one we should be fighting to preserve. 

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