When we think about the environment, most of us imagine a verdant landscape of leafy trees, rolling hills and vast lakes, or at least something not far removed from this spectacular image. Humans, in spite of their environmental conceptions, do not so much occupy a natural world, however.
In fact, in the western world where well over two thirds of humans live in densely urbanized cities and towns, our environments are mostly shaped by the built environment, a collection of buildings, roads and infrastructure that make up the bedrock of our communities.
The built environment is an important place to study because of its tremendously harmful impact on the natural world. Buildings, which make up a large portion of the built environment, account for nearly forty percent of energy consumption alone in the developed world. Of this, residential buildings are by far the most responsible, accounting for well over half of the consumption. As a result, the average household spends at least $2,000 a year on energy bills — over half of which goes to heating and cooling.
In addition, buildings contribute over one third of the developed world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Smog may not always be visible, but one cannot escape the discomfort and mugginess of heat. Indeed, thermostats in cities with one million people or more can rise anywhere between one and three degrees Celsius as a result of excessive carbon emissions.
To make matters worse, heat islands are increasingly responsible for creating summertime peak energy demand due to the use of air conditioners in particular, a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gases. Do the wasteful habits of westerners with regard to water even need to be mentioned?
Land use is also an important indicator of the toll that the built environment is taking on the environment. Indeed, in North America where land use planning since the Second World War has been characterized by low density and single-use planning, land is being built up at a shocking pace.
In fact, urbanized land quadrupled in size from 1945 to 2002, increasing at about twice the rate of population growth over this same period. The relative decrease in agricultural land is equally disconcerting. And without locally-sourced agriculture, it becomes difficult to feed ever growing cities.
The good news is many observers believe that cities may also embody the solution to the issues at hand. Indeed, by creating densely populated walkable communities, society may in turn decrease the need for the automobile, another major source of energy consumption and carbon emissions. To compound the net benefits of living in cities, however, the world at large, and particularly North American societies, must begin to build smaller more energy efficient homes.
Consumer habits must also change. Indeed, buy local movements are a direct result of the move to create more sustainable cities. Either way, the built environment must change its course, predominantly by decreasing its consumption of energy, offsetting its creation of carbon, and eliminating the waste of so much else.