This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

What Do We Mean by Urban Sustainability?

Everyone wants and, indeed, loves to talk about sustainability, but it is a maddeningly difficult concept to nail down. This seemed to be the overall conclusion of a new National Research Council report on "Pathways to Urban Sustainability: Research and Development on Urban Systems." 

Workshop participants did not set out to uncover a precise definition of a sustainable city. Rather, their discussions emphasized the fluid nature of urban sustainability both as an intellectual concept and a strategic building block for policies designed to improve living and working conditions―for today's citizens and future generations. It was this sense of how difficult it is to make sense of urban parameters in the metropolitan expanses of 21st century America that both guided and constrained conversations at the workshop.

There were at least two important shortcomings of this panel. First, it focused only on the United States--a country with the resources to make a lot of mistakes and get away with them, at least for awhile. The real issue of sustainability lies in the cities of developing countries, where population growth routinely overruns local infrastructure. Secondly, there were no demographers or other social scientists on the panel or among the participants. Someone needed to be at the meeting to respond appropriately to the comment of Adolfo Carrion, appointed by President Obama as the first Director of the nation’s Office of Urban Affairs, who noted in his talk: “The United States is becoming more urbanized and the current trend is unsustainable.” That is pure nonsense. The populations of the US and of the world are continuing to grow and people have to be put in urban places, which are almost certainly more sustainable than rural places. This pattern will have to be made sustainable, or else our standard of living will drop precipitously, the death rate will rise, and we will discover that we are in overshoot.

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