When we talk about urban trends and demographic changes, most of us know the story— there are 315 million people living in the United States and that number continues to grow. Globally, experts project the world’s population to jump from seven billion to nine billion over the next 50 or so years and we need to do something in order to address the looming issues of food production, energy production and access to freshwater. But in order to have a mindful conversation about what that something is, we have to first get our hands around the issue—where we are, where we’re headed and what we can do about it.
Currently, around 80 percent of the US population lives in an urban area, and that percentage will only get larger—the U.S. adds a new resident every 17 seconds. And experts agree that our population growth over the next several decades will happen in cities; already, more than half the country’s 486 urban areas have populations of more than 100,000. In order to accommodate the growing number of residents, cities are expanding their boundaries and linking to areas once considered outlying suburbs to form larger areas that include residential, retail and business corridors. While such development can be beneficial for residents, it puts enormous pressure on everything from the availability of freshwater to the amount of open green space. Increased development can also have real effects on our food supplies; while farmers already contend with issues like unpredictable weather, soil quality and drought, expanding cities means they may also lose acreage to encroaching municipalities.
Meanwhile, we are all contending with the effects of climate change—record-setting temperatures and, at times, erratic weather. According to a recent New York Times article, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States; in fact, the 10 warmest years on record have all fallen within the past 15 years. Last summer’s drought withered corn and soybean crops across the Midwest and affected 61 percent of the country. It also exacerbated concerns across the South and West, where some of the fastest-growing metro areas are located, as regional planners struggled to balance an influx of new residents with strained freshwater resources.
A changing climate is also a huge concern for residents on or near the coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asserts that 52 percent of the US population lives in a designated coastal watershed—that is more than 160 million people in just 20 percent of the country’s land area, which puts incredible pressure on marine systems. Our oceans are far more than scenic—they support industry, millions of jobs and provide a cultural touchstone to people of all ages. Who can forget the first time they curled their toes in clean, warm sand and peered out at a vast blue sea of possibility?
Finally, it’s not only a matter of where people are moving, but who is moving; the two largest groups in the U.S. right now are Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and the Millennial generation, born between 1979 and 1996. They combine to represent more than 160 million people—a full 50 percent of the population. That has stunning implications for the future of our cities; as Boomers live longer (and look to downsize) and Millennials reach maturity and strike out on their own, research shows both sets are eschewing the suburbs for city centers.
So now that we know the score, what do we do? With our cities becoming more diverse and less dispersed, the challenge is to ensure a balance between our food, water and energy needs while making sure we maintain the simple majesty of our coastlines, rivers and prairies, for ourselves and our children. The Nature Conservancy is meeting that challenge using three proven strategies:
- Water funds are voter-approved investments in the protection of local water resources; with four distinct models, the Conservancy has used them in cities across the U.S. and Latin America. New York City famously invested in the Catskill Mountains to protect a secure source of safe, clean drinking water that now serves more than eight million people, while San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and other cities have also made investments to protect the sources of their water.
- Hurricane Sandy has brought the idea of coastal resiliency into sharp focus—we know that it’s critical to protecting the low-lying areas along our nation’s coastline and the millions of people who reside in and around those areas. I wrote extensively about coastal resiliency in my previous blog; projects such as oyster reef and marshland restoration can help restore coastlines and mitigate the effects of erosion.
- We are also focused on developing and expanding urban forests in cities across the country. Whether it’s a city park, a converted lot or a neighborhood with extensive tree cover, an abundance of native growth can contribute to a healthier city—residents have access to green space, trees help reduce air pollution and smog, and children can experience the simple joys of nature that abound outside their doors.
These strategies address real, tangible issues our cities are facing, while allowing us to honor the obligation we have to future generations and respect the innate connection we all have to nature. They also lend support to a simple truth that is often overlooked: conservation and a healthy economy go hand in hand. Without clean air and reliable water resources, businesses cannot prosper and plan for the future. Healthy families can’t thrive. And our country ultimately cannot flourish. Though most people plot conservation on one end of the spectrum and a healthy economy on the other end, I maintain that we can not only have both, we need both. Within 50 years, the demands on our water, our land and our energy will be untenable unless we invest today in smart development and even smarter conservation efforts.
Laura Huffman is the director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. A native of Austin, Huffman has a long and distinguished record of public service. She earned a master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in political science with a minor in history from Texas A&M University. She makes her home in Austin, with husband Kent and their four children.
[Photo by Flickr user EnvironmentBlog via Creative Commons.]
by Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy