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?