More People, More Problems: Future-Proofing our Cities

Extreme weather trends combined with a rapidly growing urban population. What is happening and what can we do about it?

By: Mark Tercek & Laura J. Huffman

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area, causing the East River to overflow its banks and inundate much of Lower Manhattan. A record 14-foot storm surge was recorded at Battery Park and the city and its suburbs experienced massive power outages and a complete breakdown of mass transit service. Mayor Michael Bloomberg assessed the damage at more than $80 billion, making Sandy the second costliest hurricane in United States history, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The persistent drought in Texas, which began in 2011 and continues today, has affected everything from its legislative priorities to its agricultural industry to the state’s expansive tree canopy—and the latter is a problem that could take generations to undo. More than 60 million of Greater Houston’s 663 million trees died as a result of the drought, including 50 percent of the tree canopy in the city’s beloved 1,400+-acre Memorial Park. 

In mid-2013, floods in central Europe killed at least 23 people, causing close to $22 billion in economic losses and as much as $5.3 billion in insured losses. It has been deemed the costliest natural disaster of the year thus far.

These are not isolated events, but just a few of too many examples that illustrate the perils of an increasingly frequent one-two environmental punch: extreme weather trends combined with a rapidly growing urban population. What is happening and what can we do about it?

Several global megatrends are reshaping how cities think about and rely on natural resources.                                                                                    

A Booming Population and Rapid Urbanization

The United Nations projects the world’s population will jump from seven billion to more than nine billion over the next 50 years, with three out of every five people living in an urban area. That will put unprecedented pressures on already aging and crumbling infrastructure. We already see evidence of this across the U.S. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a comprehensive assessment of the country’s infrastructure—its roads, bridges, dams, levees and water pipelines. Grades in 2013 ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways, with the average coming in at a D+.

What can cities do to raise these grades? They cannot afford to rely solely on traditional solutions. Building our way out of the challenges surrounding rapid population growth and urbanization simply isn’t cost-effective—the ASCE estimates the government would need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to upgrade existing infrastructure. And that figure doesn’t account for the new infrastructure needed to support growing cities.

Global Responses

Fortunately, nature can help solve these problems, add important compounding benefits for nature and people, and potentially reduce the cost of addressing these challenges. Natural systems—things like healthy trees and intact coastal wetlands—have the capacity to reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain water supplies, and protect us from storms and hurricanes. They are tangible assets that contribute to our economy, so we must invest in them wisely to secure our shared future. And we need to invest on a scale that makes a difference. We cannot combat problems like extreme weather, aging infrastructure and population growth with small thinking. Science and experience have shown us that protecting small, fragmented parcels of land or portions of rivers will not move the conservation ball forward.

So what will?

Urban Water Management

Water is about securing our collective good fortune. Over the next 20 to 30 years, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban area of 10 million or more. More people in our cities will equal more demand for water, energy and food, not to mention the necessary infrastructure and economic development to support such demands. Conservation will be the key to tackling this issue—it is our least expensive option to stretch our water resources further. We have the same amount of water today as we did thousands of years ago, so the truth is that we must all use less to guarantee sufficient water to support our rapidly growing population, grow our economy and protect our natural resources. Our success will depend on our ability to optimize the use of water for cities, energy and food production. But in doing so, we cannot pit one interest against another; it won't work.

One of the Conservancy’s most practical, proven approaches is the use of water funds, a simple but elegant solution that can be used in some of the world’s most water-constrained places. Cities and towns establish these funds through voter-approved initiatives or small fees tacked on to monthly water bills. The resulting revenue is then used to restore and protect the land that lies within important local watersheds. Science tells us that protecting the land in and around these watersheds is the most beneficial way to ensure safe and adequate water supplies.

A recent EPA survey found more than 50 percent of rivers and streams in the U.S. are in “poor biological health,” due primarily to an excess of harmful nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Water funds can help protect the quality of our water supplies in order to avoid unnecessary treatment costs in the future.

Coastal Defense

Eight of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have happened since 2004—and all evidence suggests stronger and more destructive storms are the new normal. Within the last decade, The Federal Emergency Management Agency has poured $200 billion into the Gulf Coast region in the wake of various hurricanes—that’s roughly the cost of damages incurred by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined.  The second largest fiscal liability of the U.S. Government, behind Social Security, is the National Flood Insurance Program. But what if we could mitigate those insurance claims in the future?

Rebuilding and restoring oyster reefs, wetlands, seagrass, coral reefs and coastal marshes can help safeguard coastal communities, where roughly 120 million Americans live. These natural assets create an insurance policy for the future—they are nature’s cushion against rising sea levels and storm surge, and they remove pollution from the millions of gallons of freshwater that flow into our oceans each minute. For example: A single healthy oyster can filter between 40 and 60 gallons of water; a healthy, 20-acre reef could filter as much water as the city of Houston uses on an average summer day. 

Urban Tree Canopies

A full quarter of the world's forests are in cities and towns—very literally, in our own backyards. Trees are one of our most valuable natural defenses, cleaning our air and water and creating a higher quality of life. Science has demonstrated the benefits of natural solutions like reforestation—each year, for instance, Houston trees remove an estimated 779 tons of harmful ground-level ozone, a gas created from emissions from industrial facilities, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust and gasoline vapors. Trees also keep rivers healthy by absorbing toxins that pollute the water, and their root systems bind with soil to prevent erosion. Tracts of trees can help filter impurities like sediment, oil, grease and trash from our surface water and reduce stormwater runoff by absorbing rainwater, which ultimately replenishes groundwater supplies. 

Building Environmental Leaders

Children in the U.S. are less connected to nature than ever—only 10 percent of kids polled by The Nature Conservancy reported spending time outside every day. That’s why initiatives like the Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program are vital. LEAF offers real world conservation work experiences to urban youth, creating formative experiences in nature and nurturing a sense of connection with the outdoors. Ninety-six percent of participants go directly to college after high school and nearly 80 percent call themselves environmentalists. A full 70 percent have reported changing the environmental behavior of others. Conservation needs these types of champions—young, proactive and fully engaged in creating a better future.

The connection between nature and cities is inextricable—it isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential. By protecting freshwater supplies, defending coastlines, maintaining a healthy tree cover and creating a new generation of environmental leaders, we can essentially future-proof our cities and ensure their continued prosperity.  Imagine a world with an abundance of shared natural resources in and around urban areas. Now imagine how exciting it would be to leave that world to our children.

Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, is a former investment banker and author of the book“Nature’s Fortune.”

Laura J. Huffman leads The Nature Conservancy’s Urban Strategies program and is state director of the Conservancy in Texas.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.