Advancing urbanization

This post is part of the “Urban EE Essays” series (April 18–June 20, 2016). Editors: Alex Russ and Marianne Krasny (Cornell University). Photo credit: Alex Russ.


Advancing urbanization

David Maddox, The Nature of Cities, USA

Harini Nagendra, Azim Premji University, India

Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm University, Sweden

Alex Russ, Cornell University, USA



  • Cities are human habitat—integrated systems of people, infrastructure and nature—and are key to human-nature relationships and global sustainability.
  • We need cities that are resilient, sustainable, livable, and just.
  • Urban environmental education can help debunk common assumptions: that cities are ecologically barren, nature is only in wilderness, and city people don’t care for, or need, nature.
  • Telling the story of “advancing urbanization”—both the global acceleration of urbanization and the promise offered by urbanization—is an essential role for urban environmental education.


Cities—their design and how we live in them—will be key in our struggle for sustainability, indeed our future. As cities grow, as they are newly created, and as more and more people choose or require them as places to live, our decisions about urban design and city-building will determine the outcomes of long-term challenges related to resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice. Rather than being the essential cause of the global environmental dangers we face, cities will be central to success in overcoming these dangers. Such success will be based on science and policy, but also on widespread public engagement with and understanding of both the challenges and the potential solutions found in building cities. Environmental education can play a critical role in fostering public engagement through clarifying and transmitting the challenges, values, actions, and methods for achieving sustainable, resilient, livable, and just cities.

What is urban?

At their core, urban spaces are human settlements of various sizes, densities, and physical arrangements. Major urban centers, cities, towns, and even organized collections of populated zones that comprise metropolitan regions are “urban”—that is, urban comprises a diversity and continuum of types of spaces, not one form. The dense and compact European city surrounded by rural land is one form. Classic American cities and their sprawl is another model. Garden cities, clustered townships, and other urban forms all have characteristics in common.

What are the unifying features of these diverse urban forms? People—and their communities—is one. Buildings, streets and other grey infrastructure is another. And nature is a third. By including nature as a key characteristic of cities we do not mean nature as an idealized or hoped-for feature. Nature is an attribute of every city, both within its borders and as a connection to the wider landscape, because while cities are social and infrastructural spaces, they are also ecological spaces. They are social-ecological spaces of functioning ecosystems of living and non-living things. In this sense cities are essential human habitat.

Acknowledging that cities are themselves ecosystems that exist along gradients with surrounding peri-urban and rural areas has deep implications not only for the humanity and livability of the world’s urban zones, but also for global sustainability more broadly. Urbanization is advancing throughout the world. Urbanization as a positive concept for the good of the Earth is also advancing around the world among thoughtful scholars and within progressive city leadership. It is also advancing in the hands of people on the streets who are building better cities, block by block, through community gardens, street tree plantings, parks and embedded natural areas, and who are engaging in participatory decision-making. Telling the story of this advancement—both the global acceleration of urbanization and the promise offered by urbanization—is an essential role for an emerging urban environmental education.

The growth of cities 

The world is increasingly urban, interconnected, and changing. With current trends, by 2030 the global urban population is estimated to be 4.9 billion, nearly double that of 2000. During this period the total urban area is expected to triple. That is, urban land area is expanding faster than urban populations (Elmqvist et al., 2013). This massive change in where humans live on the planet will have inevitable local and global ecological consequences.

Indeed, more than 60% of 2030s projected urban area has yet to be built (Elmqvist et al., 2013). In three areas—sub-Saharan Africa, China, and India—the combined urban population is expected to grow by more than one billion people. By 2030, nearly one-third of the world’s urban inhabitants will live in China or India (Seto, Güneralp, and Hutyra, 2012). Africa will urbanize faster than any other continent: its urban population is expected to more than double, from 300 million in 2000 to 750 million in 2030. Around 75% of Africa’s total population growth is expected to occur in cities of less than one million. African cities are often settlements with weak governance structures, high levels of poverty, and low capacity in environmental science. Currently, more than 43% of Africa’s urban population lives below the poverty line, more than in any other continent, making socioeconomic development a priority. Generally weak state control, the presence of a feeble formal economic sector, and the scarcity of local professional skills will constrain responses to the complex environmental challenges posed by rapid urbanization. Even under current conditions, urban areas all over the planet are facing severe challenges, including shortages of natural resources, environmental degradation, climate change, demographic and social changes such as increasing income inequality and poverty, and inconsistent management of sustainability transitions that would reduce ecological impacts.

Climate change, increased migration of people, and ecological degradation will severely test societies and urban regions. However, the urbanization process also presents opportunities. That 60% of 2030 cities are yet to be built is a chance to avoid repeating the city-building mistakes of the past. The infrastructure we build in cities—where we put the roads and the buildings, and how we organize resource use—tends to be with us a long time. The immensity of new building now underway is a chance to get it right, for both people and nature.


What are the cities we want to create in the future, the cities in which we want to live, cities that work for both people and the Earth? What is their nature? A vision is needed for city-building, one that is fundamentally built around goals and informed by values. Visions, goals, values, and actions, along with scientific data and experiential knowledge, are the essence of education, including environmental education.

Certainly the cities we need are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm, now occurring with increasing frequency. Certainly they are sustainable, since we need our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. As we build this vision we know that cities must also be livable, because cities are now the places where most of us live. And justice must also be key to our urban environments. We have struggled to build just cities for a long time; largely we have come up short.

These are the key characteristics of the cities of our dreams: resilient, sustainable, livable, and just. What are the values that are foundations for these goals? They are, at a minimum, inclusiveness, equity, respect for people and knowledge, innovation, and conservation.

The United Nation’s Urban Sustainable Development Goals offer some guidance—a global consensus on what is important (United Nations, 2015). Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals approved in 2015, is one explicitly about cities, #11: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” This goal offers a roadmap to the operational values we should investigate, appropriate, share, and teach in the emerging urban world; the roadmap should include targets for open space, sustainable environmental management, and access to nature and its myriad benefits and services. At the center of Sustainable Development Goal #11 and our general approach to cities, explicitly and implicitly, is nature—both as a literal feature of the cities we require for resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice, and as a metaphor for the kinds of cities we desire.

The richness of the urban environment

Why should we care about the impacts of urbanization on ecosystems? In addition to the intrinsic value of nature, urban ecosystems are essential for human well-being, and ultimately, for urban resilience and sustainability. Because urban nature has explicit benefits, its availability to all people is a matter of justice. The environmental consequences of the rapid growth of cities—especially poorly designed and operated ones—is starkly apparent. Urban expansion has degraded and destroyed natural habitats in and around cities worldwide, transforming forests, coastal mangroves, lakes and wetlands into vast expanses of concrete and polluted travesties of their former ecological vigor.

Yet, cities are far from barren. In contrast, cities are often rich in biodiversity (Aronson et al., 2014). Cities can be key stopovers along migratory routes of birds. Some cities are biodiversity hotspots in their own right. They contain small but thriving pockets of biodiversity with native and non-native (novel) species assemblages (Faeth, Bang and Saari, 2014). Such assemblages of urban species and habitats provide a range of ecosystem services that are critical for the sustainability of cities, indeed for the life of cities. Wetlands clean water contaminated with industrial pollutants and sewage; trees may clean the air of pollutants; and urban ecosystems provide important habitats for insects, birds, bats, and other pollinators and urban wildlife.

For humans, exposure to green spaces fosters physical well-being and psychological relief from stress. Urban green spaces include not only city parks, but also the wide array of macro and micro urban places, from wetlands and bioswales, to street trees, pocket parks, community gardens, and even biophilic workspaces. A diversity of people and communities work in and interact with nature in these spaces, including from civil society (e.g., civic groups, activists), government, and the corporate sector (Kazemi, Beecham and Gibbs, 2011; Beninde, Veith and Hochkirch, 2015). Parks, community gardens, sidewalks shaded by trees, as well as lakes and coastal beaches act as important nodes for people to congregate, strengthening social bonds among disparate urban residents.

Natural areas in cities also often hold an important place in the cultural landscape of residents, and are sometimes considered sacred and worshipped in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. In New York City, immigrants and other residents demonstrate care, stewardship, and spiritual practices in natural areas and parks (Svendsen, Campbell and McMillen, 2016). Urban ecosystems also provide resources for foraging in cities, offering food and livelihood security for vulnerable communities through the provision of fish, herbs and vegetables, fodder, fuelwood, and other resources. Many urban ecosystems historically functioned as urban commons, providing collective resources for entire communities in times of scarcity and need.

In addition to enhancing individual and community well-being, urban natural areas provide a buffer against local and global environmental factors such as pollution and climate change. Similarly, through urban agriculture, urban green spaces buffer against economic and food insecurity of the urban poor. In short, green urban spaces are key to global sustainability, and need to be recognized as positive forces in shaping human stewardship of the entire biosphere (Elmqvist et al., 2013).

That cities have dire environmental and biodiversity challenges is certainly true. That they are ecologically dead, or are the causes of all the world’s environmental problems, is false. Yet many cities are experiencing a crisis of green and open space, especially in the Global South. The lack of accessible green and open space contributes to desperately poor conditions for both people and nature (Wolch, Byrne and Newell, 2014). Thus, having sufficient access to good quality urban green space is an issue of ecological and social concern, impacting quality of life and social justice.

Role for education

In a world of advancing urbanization, urban environmental education can play a key role. The story of cities as ecological spaces needs to be told—both in cities and outside them—to adults and to the many young people who increasingly populate the world’s growing cities; to our leaders in government, business and civil society making decisions about the built and natural environment; and to each other in our daily lives. Such stories will have a critical impact on the willingness of the inhabitants of the cities of the future to protect and care for—and create—their urban environments.

Thought leaders and educators can communicate the connection between the urban environment and human and global environmental health. They also can communicate that merely recording the presence of species in urban environments does not necessarily indicate their health; that actions such as thoughtless use of pesticides and planting invasive species may deprive native fauna of feeding and nesting habitats; that the persistence of many species in urban environments, such as macaques, langurs and birds of prey in Indian cities, can be attributed to cultural traditions of good-will towards life; that local food production with diverse methods is central to local health; that all people, not just the rich, deserve access to ecosystem services; and that consumption and transportation choices are key to global sustainability. Finally, educators can communicate that there is a connection between green urban design and resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice.

Urban environmental education can play a pivotal role in telling these stories by teaching about urban biodiversity, ecosystem services, and nature, and about the myriad connections between the built and natural world in cities. Urban environmental education that is sensitive to its local cultural context and incorporates scientific insights from urban social-ecological systems thinking can make a significant difference, encouraging residents to care about their environment and giving them the knowledge on which to act. Urban environmental education also can engage people directly in action, where lessons are learned through hands-on and collective stewardship practices like community gardening, rather than through directed teaching. What is learned through such active participation in and reflecting on stewardship practices may lead to future more informed engagement in environmental practices and policy related decision-making.

The dire challenges of urban environmental pollution and degradation—and their relevance to resilience, sustainability, livability, and justice—can quickly lead to the trap of purely dismal narratives. This does not have to be the case. In addition to a narrative of ecological loss and the consequences for human well-being, we can develop and communicate positive messages of real change that simultaneously convey facts, challenges, and potential solutions. We must emphasize the importance of ecological, social, and technical solutions, while also addressing the challenges of equity, conflict and exclusion.

Thus, while focusing on the “what” questions of the intended human, social, and environmental outcomes, the field of urban environmental education can equally focus on the “how” questions of process. This entails helping people to understand—often through hands-on engagement in stewardship and related practices—the ways in which social and environmental change can be initiated and inclusively scaled up in their own cities and social-ecological contexts. In this regard, urban environmental education can play the key influential role that only it can fill: helping to creatively re-conceptualize, re-design, and re-develop existing and emerging cities by helping people learn about and create green infrastructure, influence urban planning and design, change individual behaviors, and undertake collective environmental actions. 


Urban environmental education in an emerging urban world faces multiple challenges. Is there a uniquely urban version of environmental education? To a large extent, that is a subject for this book. We know that some established environmental assumptions must be adjusted in a modern urban context: that nature can only be found the wilderness, that cities are the enemy of sustainability, that cities are ecologically barren, and that city people don’t engage with nature. All are largely false, or misleading.

How can we advance an urban vision that serves people and our planet, a vision that is fundamentally imbued with values? Tell the story, far and wide, that cities are essential hotspots of nature that serve people and the Earth. Nature exists in cities, and it needs to be seeded, grown and nurtured as a commons. And importantly, urban residents all over the globe are creating innovative approaches that simultaneously address social and environmental injustice. These are stories that must be told to students, to teachers, to leaders, to community members, and to ourselves. This is the key and essential role—advancing progressive urban environmental ideas in a global context—for an emerging urban environmental education. Telling this critical story is the challenge to which environmental education is called in the urban 21st century.


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