The city and the countryside offer distinct freedoms. In one, you have access to services nearly 24/7. You can order food to your door at three in the morning and hop on a ten-minute bus ride to your job. The other allows you free range to roam. You have room to grow and harvest food. There’s less pollution and more land. Each allows for a unique lifestyle that will seem more appealing depending on personal preferences and goals. As a society, Americans tend to think of the two as opposites that never see eye to eye. However, as different as they seem, they rely on each other and are much more connected than you might think.
The history of cities
Cities such as those found in Ancient Mesopotamia first developed around 6,000 years ago. The region had abundant natural resources and stable production of food. This was juxtaposed with the ability to access, transport, and distribute water, allowing the residents of these areas to be partially freed from the manual labor that would have otherwise consumed their time entirely. The production of goods was facilitated, and trade and exchange could thrive unlike ever before. As a side effect, cultural customs developed and expanded at a larger scale, small cities were born, and the community’s leaders acquired more power, becoming kings and queens.
Parallel to this phenomenon is the Industrial Revolution, an era that began in Great Britain and propelled the nation to wealth and prosperity. Much like the populations of Ancient Mesopotamia, access to energy resources such as coal allowed Great Britain to produce the goods that fed their economy much more efficiently through machines. They developed factories to make mass quantities of steel, iron, textiles, and other goods. Consequently, people began to migrate to the city, where job opportunities were more readily available. Large, modern cities were born, factory owners got rich, and the power began to shift away from the monarchy’s hands.
From a historical perspective, we can see that cities significantly influence wealth and power. A nation with large cities is better equipped to advance technologically and economically. Yet, they also require an immense amount of energy to function and would be unable to survive independently.
Cities and energy
Cities are like living organisms. They consume energy and produce waste through a process called “urban metabolism.” Food, water, and energy are harvested from the country and transported to the city, where they serve as fuel. For example, for Chicago to have enough energy to function effectively, it relies on the natural resources in Illinois. This includes land used to harvest wind and solar power, rivers and lakes for hydroelectric power, fossil fuels, and the food and water needed to sustain its growing population. The cities feed and grow from this energy. However, they also then have the resources to develop new technology
Cities and waste
Waste is a key factor in the relationship between cities, energy, and sustainability. If produced in overly large quantities or if not disposed of properly, it can cause severe problems for the environment. For example, excessive air conditioning on hot summer days requires tremendous energy. This energy is often used through fossil fuels which release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Consequently, the hot summer days get hotter, and even more, energy is needed to cool our homes. It’s important to remember that our energy resources are not all unlimited. Being efficient and producing less waste is essential for sustainability to be achieved.
Discover more about the connection between cities and energy by watching the Power Trip: The Story of Energy CITIES, and check out more amazing episodes here! Also available on PBS, Apple TV, and Prime Video.