Why cities are key to the future

A thriving city street-scape (even better if you imagine away the parked cars!)

[This article was first published on https://www.catherineknight.nz/]

I believe cities are the key to the future. A bit controversial maybe – and no doubt many will disagree with me – but let me tell you about our experience and what has led me to this conclusion.

In 2017, my family and I moved to a lifestyle block in the country, about 30 km out from the nearest city and 15 km from the nearest shops. It seemed like a great opportunity to live close to the land, especially for our two kids, who were pre-school and primary school aged at the time.

We had the obligatory chickens, a flock of black and white Wiltshire sheep and for a while some gentle-natured lowline Angus cattle. We had a vegetable garden and a couple of fruit trees (though I did find out the hard way that sheep like to eat feijoa trees and walnuts don’t like clay soils).

Our sheep came to the rattle of sheep nuts
Chickens make good pets but can be quite bossy (like someone else I know!)

Every winter we planted a trailer-load of eco-sourced native trees, and a once bare field is now bordered by a thick ribbon of vegetation – or as a neighbouring farmer observed, ‘You have blocked out the view!’ (note to readers: trees are not ‘a view’). We also worked on restoring the gully stream ecosystem from its weed-infested state.

The house we built was small, barely over 100 square metres, thermally efficient and made from no-fuss, long-lasting materials.

Little house in the valley

We sought a community-oriented life. Our children went to the local country school, just half a kilometre down the road.

But of course, like many ‘lifestylers’ we also maintained our jobs, which in my husband’s case involved a 60 km commute every day. I was working as a policy and communications consultant which meant that I did not need to commute daily – a no-commute lifestyle had been a bottom-line for me before we made the shift to the country.

Topping the grass with a neigbour’s vintage tractor

But for all our living ‘from the land’, light-footprint aspirations, I became increasingly uncomfortable that this was a bit of a fraud. Running livestock for example, irrespective of how few, requires all the same nutritional, water-provisioning, fencing and animal welfare requirements as an actual farming operation (but without the efficiency of scale) – involving the purchasing of all kinds of paraphernalia that needed to be stored in a shipping container, along with other belongings we had accumulated along the way. We used to joke too that, with all the investment in our chickens – a premium quality henhouse, fencing, bedding material, feeding equipment and mollasses-fortified feed – the chooks really should have been producing golden eggs!

And of course, every time we needed something – milk or bread, for example – it was at least a 30 km round trip to get it.

And as the time came for our son to move on to high school, which would require a 60 km round-trip on a number of buses, it was time to re-evaluate. Not only were we concerned about our expanding carbon footprint but also the inability of our son to be independent or spontaneous – every after-school activity would require us to ferry him around.

A year ago we moved to the Kapiti Coast, to the town of Waikanae – sometimes known as God’s waiting room, because of the comparatively large proportion of older people. I was really sad about seeing our sheep go (to a new home, not to a freezer – I can happily reassure you, readers) but also felt like a bit of a hypocrite because it was my husband who had done all the work caring for them. Happily, we were able to find our chooks a new home just around the corner from our new place in Waikanae – and even get to eat their freshly laid eggs.

But apart from the sheepish regrets (bad pun alert), there has been no looking back. We now live a 5–15 minute cycle ride from both kids’ schools, a 5-minute cycle to the public swimming pool, a 10-minute cycle from two supermarkets, two farmers’ markets, our GP, our dentist, the chemist, the library and pretty much every other service we need on a daily basis.

Cycling is safe and pleasurable in Waikanae – including for Archie, who has become a bit of a local celebrity

And of course, there is the all-important green- and nature space. We live a 2-minute walk from the best football fields on the Coast (fortunate, because everyone in the family is football mad), minute from a beautiful swimming spot and 1 minute from a network of nature-rich walk- and cycle-ways along the river to the sea.

Social connection is so much easier and spontaneous here too. We are forever meeting new and interesting people out on our walks or as we go about everyday life.

Going for a cycle along the river pathway, with Gracie the dog and Mia the lamb

Because I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home at least part of my working week, I can go for days on end without using the car.

In short, whether it is that way by accident or design, we live in a 15-minute neighbourhood. In other words, we have everything we need for a good life within 15 minutes walk or cycle of our home.

But I am acutely conscious how fortunate we are – we had the means to purchase here and to the make the choices we have to be in this position.

Being able to live with a light footprint, within 15-20 minutes safe and pleasurable walk, mobility-scooter, cycle or bus-ride from most of the things you need in life should not be the preserve of the well-off. It should be everyone’s right in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Already 86% of New Zealanders live in our towns and cities. I emphatically believe that our towns and cities are going to be pivotal to a low-emissions, low-energy future. We therefore need them to be places people want to live – places people will not just survive, but thrive. Places where people feel connected – to place, people and nature. As we grapple with the challenges of the transition to a low-carbon future, now is the time to reshape our towns and cities so that they are fit for the future.

Dr Catherine Knight is author of ‘Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand‘ (Totara Press, 2020) and ‘Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand‘ (Canterbury University Press, 2018). To view her other publications see her website http://www.catherineknight.nz.

2 thoughts on “Why cities are key to the future

  1. Dr Mike Joy December 2, 2022 / 2:38 pm

    As you predicted, I have to be one of the disagree-ers Catherine. Cities require huge amounts of energy, I am in Melbourne at present, without huge amounts of energy it would be utterly impossible to live here. High rises need aircon, heating, lifts, a massive infrastructure to provide water and food and remove waste, every part of it further from natural systems than possible. We cannot replace fossil energy at anywhere near current city requirements with “renewable” (actually rebuildable) energy without destroying what is left of the planet. Our future must be one with a tiny proportion of current energy use and cities cannot do that. Jason is much better than me at explaining https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-02-26/the-future-is-rural-the-unexpected-consequence-of-energy-descent/

    • envirohistory NZ December 2, 2022 / 6:58 pm

      Mmmm interesting… so how will people living rurally move around? Maybe the idea is that they won’t? In terms of Jason’s analysis, I will have to study in detail but looking at his graph which plots % rural population against energy use, is this not an issue of correlation vs causation? It looks to me (granted only a layperson) that the association is with per capita GDP or related income metric (the lower it is the less energy per capita countries generally use). Burundi and Uganda for instance are among the poorest countries in the world. I would absolutely expect their per capita energy consumption to be among the lowest in the world – this is consistent with the literature. Also how energy-intensive a city currently is not really the point, it is about what gains we can make through good urban planning and building design and associated transition to public and active transport. Check out the carbon ‘heat’ maps for the US that show rural areas as red hot for per capita carbon emission vs per capita carbon emissions in urban areas (the closer to centre the cooler blue it gets). Maybe US is unusual in this respect but I suspect it similar across ‘global north’ countries.

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