Edens Lost & Found: Building Sustainable Cities

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First, the bad news

hat is it about a city that is unsustainable? Well, it's the ultimate consumer of resources and funds and the ultimate producer of air and water pollution - and climate change. Cities damage human health. The disconnection and alienation common in cities damages the human spirit and social structure. Nationally and globally, cities damage the economy and threaten security in the way that they bully resources from other regions or other countries.

Take Los Angeles

FreewayThis is a vibrant city in a beautiful environment. But it was built with little understanding or appreciation for the power and function of nature and its cycles. Environmental problems, compounded by human behavior -- meaning you and me - take a heavy on our city's economy and ecology and thus on the health and safety of us all.

In natural systems, rainfall is caught by trees or shrubs and released slowly into the ground. This cycle produces nutrients, fresh water and clean air. Even in a semi-arid landscape like ours, the ecosystem was once in balance, providing everything that native people, plants and animals needed for a sustainable life.

Yet to build our great city, we interfered with the natural cycles of energy and water by sealing the soil with thousands of acres of concrete and asphalt.

Wasted Energy

With well over 60% of the city's surface covered with pavement, very little of the sun's energy is absorbed by vegetation. Instead, it heats up the pavement, and thus the air, needlessly overtaxing air conditioners that must struggle against this excess heat at huge cost - in terms of dollars, extra fuel burned at power plants, and extra pollution from these power plants.

Wasted water - Filthy water

Vast quantities of water are imported from distant regions and even other states to irrigate our lawns, while turning these other regions into deserts. Yet the 15 inches of rain that falls on Los Angeles every year, if captured, could meet more than half of our city's annual needs. Because it is handled as a problem rather than a resource, very little of the rainwater that falls on our city is available to refresh the soil and replenish our groundwater.

Instead, this rainfall is channeled to our roadways where it picks up oil, asbestos, pesticides, animal waste, grocery bags, Styrofoam and other trash and, as a toxic soup, rushes through our storm drain system directly out to our beaches and into the bay. You know it. You see it on the sand and in the creeks and rivers after a heavy rain.

Wasted Dollars

In the last half-century, we spent billions of dollars on massive flood control projects that have been necessary in part because of our wasteful attitude toward rainfall. Likewise, we've built ever-larger landfills at increasingly distant locations (requiring ever-increasing amounts of fuel for haulers to reach) in part because we've kept postponing the day when we would think of how to generate less trash.

By ignoring the integrated character of nature and its cycles, we consume unsustainable levels of energy and water to "meet our needs." We design our technologies and infrastructure as if there is no social, economic or environmental cost. We've not understood the human cost in terms of mental, physical, and emotional health. Yet there's hope.

Next: Now, the good news

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