Big Foot, Small World: Democracy and Urban Ecology Are Intimately Connected

By Girardet, Herbert | New Internationalist, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Big Foot, Small World: Democracy and Urban Ecology Are Intimately Connected


Girardet, Herbert, New Internationalist


TWELVE years ago, when filming a documentary, I saw a huge stack of mahogany being loaded on to a freighter at the port of Belem in the mouth of the Amazon. It had London stamped on it in large letters. It was then that I started taking an interest in the environmental impact of modern cities: the resources they take from the earth and the wastes they discharge into the global environment.

A few years ago the term 'urban ecology' started to emerge in magazine articles, books and TV programmes. Initially studies focused on ways to create healthy and pleasant urban environments, with clean water and air, green urban spaces for people to enjoy, and ample room for urban wildlife. Then some authors started pointing out that enhancing urban environmental conditions is also an issue of social justice: that the poorest, typically, live in the most polluted and most crowded urban areas, usually with very little green space available to them.

Urban ecologists started concerning themselves with children growing up in polluted environments. In Mexico City, for instance, children in art classes were found painting pictures in which the sky was coloured black rather than blue. Not surprisingly, doctors also discovered that respiratory diseases in such environments had reached unprecedented levels. Responding to popular demand, a vigorous popular movement for creating healthy cities was started in many countries, with the aim of cleaning up exhaust fumes from motor cars, reducing car access, banning polluting factories, improving sanitary conditions, particularly in the exploding cities of developing countries. Urban ecology was a frame of reference for much of this innovation.

Over the last few years the term has gradually acquired additional layers of meaning Today it is no longer just concerned with 'internal' urban environments and the pollution city people are exposed to, but increasingly with the impact of cities on the global environments from which they draw their resources and into which they discharge their wastes. As developing countries continue down the road of rapid urban-industrial growth and of increased living standards, per-capita demand for land may well outstrip the amount available for urban needs.

The concept of the 'ecological footprint' of cities originated from research by the Canadian ecologist William Rees. He defined it as the surface areas required to feed cities, to supply them with forest products and to reabsorb their wastes, and particularly their output of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning. I have examined the ecological footprint of London, where I live: it equals the UK's entire area of productive land, around 125 times London's own surface area, a total of 19.7 million hectares. Rees established that European citizens average an ecological footprint of some three hectares, whereas North Americans require between four and five. Yet, worldwide, only one-and-a-half hectares of productive land is available per person.

New prints

As the cities of the South grow exponentially they, like the cities of the North, are beginning to create their own ecological footprints.

In the early stages of growth the impact is mainly local. A friend, who is a pilot, recently described how when flying over African cities he kept seeing ever-widening rings of denuded, treeless land surrounding them. As people from rural areas, used to burning firewood and charcoal, become city dwellers they continue using these local energy sources as long as they can.

But as cities grow larger and as firewood becomes more difficult to obtain, people get used to burning coal, kerosene or gas, often shipped in from thousands of miles away. Individual fuel consumption invariably soars. In India and China it has been found that as people move to cities from rural areas they increase their per-capita energy use by some 45 per cent as they get used to motorized transport, electric lighting, cooking with kerosene and the like. …

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