Our world is changing—there is no doubt about it. There are seven billion people on our planet right now and over the next 60 years that number will jump to roughly nine billion. More than half of those nine billion will be living in a city. Meanwhile, the population of the United States currently sits around 315 million people—about 250 million of them live in or around an urban area. That means more than three-quarters of us share a paltry three percent of land area.
If those numbers don’t worry you, you’re not paying attention. As our society grows larger and more crowded, there are questions we must answer. How can we reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain our water supplies, protect ourselves from storms and hurricanes, and help our growing cities remain hospitable and affordable?
The answer is simple: nature.
Everywhere we look, nature is working on our behalf. Consider this: Urban trees and forests reduce smog and keep rivers healthy by absorbing nutrients that spoil water quality. Their root systems bind with soil to prevent erosion and minimize flooding. Large swaths of green space in urban areas also help mitigate stormwater runoff; that’s a major problem for some East Coast cities, where outdated infrastructure is often inundated during heavy rainstorms. As a result, pipes overflow and untreated sewage runs into surrounding waterways.
As we contemplate problems like stormwater management and pollution, we must realize that our success in solving them lies in our ability to think creatively. For example, most of us agree that smart urban growth involves a thoughtfulness about native wildlife and sensitive areas. But why not start working with what we already have? Let’s use existing vacant lots and rights of way to create urban green spaces and plant trees. More green space not only benefits air and water, but leads to a more diverse mix of wildlife, prettier cityscapes and a happier, less stressed population.