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Cities and the love of environmental assets

Yesterday I was doing some consulting work on trail development in Richmond, Virginia. I had the pleasure of working for Richmond for a few months and during that time became a huge fan of the City—its architecture, topography, and river. I think that the future may be bright for Richmonders if they broaden their concerns about sustainability to include not only sustainble urban design but perhaps more important at this moment in time, sustainable City administrative structures and procedures, but that is another story and is not what this post is about.

The Metropolitan Institute does some great work. I first learned about them a few years ago when I took some classes on proffers. I guess as a part of information provided in that class, we learned about not just what government demographers were saying about future land use but also what private development firms were forecasting. To summarize, these projections claim that we in the U.S. are on the cusp of an urban renaissance—when millennials, gen. x and y’ers move back to those cities that have great culture, great universities, and guess what, great environmental assets! For these cities, population is expected to skyrocket in the next several decades. I have posted some studies from the Institute on the Blackboard that explain this phenomenon in a little more detail.

But it may not just be my kids’ generation that is bringing on the rebirth of urban areas. An article by Bryan McKenzie in yesterday’s Charlottesville Daily Progress, titled Downtown, Boomers, will alter everything Va. Researcher Says highlights a presentation by John Martin at the Southeastern Institute of Research about the market preferences of aging baby boomers to age in place and stay active in their communities, increasing demand for public transportation.

Among the recommendations Martin made is changing medical services to provide more emphasis on preventative care rather than acute care, including treatment and prevention of chronic diseases such as arthritis, hypertension and diabetes. He encouraged changes in transportation to provide safer alternatives and to provide flexible senior housing arrangements integrated into the general community.

These types of services are typically available in large towns and cities, not in rural areas and suburbs. What might be the implication of these possible demographic shifts for environmental assets and ecosystem services?

  • An actual increase in the number of farms in the U.S.. Recent data suggests this has already started to occur. Why? I am not at all sure, but perhaps it is due to several reasons:
    • Greater communication and understanding about food among urban dwellers.
    • Conversion of small plots of suburban land to farm plots as demand for suburban development falls and demand for local food increases.
  • Increased demand for quality environmental assets and services in the areas outside of cities. As more people move to cities and stay there, perhaps in higher density settings, they will demand recreational services that they can’t get in their backyards because they don’t have back yards.
  • Intergenerational communication will bring boomers and millenials to share their understanding of a more sustainable world that is more complex and more interdependent than past generations grasped. This may lead to the beginnings of an ecological age in which human culture begins to comport itself to the reality of our existence in nature (rather than on nature).

- Michael Collins


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