Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cities are Vulnerable

Sometime around three years ago an important shift occurred on planet Earth. It was an almost imperceptible shift. Even so, there is much to this shift that thoughtful people should consider. It affects a whole lot of us and it will certainly affect our children and grandchildren. Since 2008, there are now more people living in cities than live in rural areas. We are now an urban species with a rural past instead of a rural species with a few urban tendencies.

This month's Scientific American is dedicated to this new reality - to cities and all of their presumed virtues. And make no mistake, there are quite a few urban virtues. Some of the most notable ones include innovation and the wise use of resources. It might not come as a surprise that proximity helps generate ideas. but it comes as a surprise to some of us that proximity also means more energy efficiency. People living in big cities often use less energy than their rural relatives - or so it is claimed.

One of the urban virtues that stands out in my mind is the existence of world class museums and venues for the arts. Rural areas usually don't have enough resources to promote such cultural opportunities. I suppose that one can make the same argument for athletic teams. It is the big city that is able to pay for the big events.

Of course there is a flip-side to these arguments. Crime is perhaps the most obvious. But cities are also the primary place of declining traditional values. And one has to point out that the so-called energy efficiency of cities is only possible because rural people produce what cities consume. The carbon footprint is not just about urban cleanliness. It is more about a division of labor. And, in fact, the innovation card itself is becoming less and less convincing as advances in communication make it possible for rural and urban people alike to interface - obviating many difficulties of distance.

But there is another urban cost that is almost never mentioned in these discussions - and one barely even implied in this month's Scientific American. It is a cost that we seem willing to pay at the moment but a cost, nonetheless, that we may not be up to paying in the future. This cost is vulnerability. And cities are vulnerable in several different ways.

The most obvious recent example is the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington DC. But this is clearly no isolated case. History is full of these kinds of focused attacks on populated areas. Troy fell because of a well-placed "gift horse". Pharaoh's metropolis was leveled by Biblical plagues. World War II finally ended after the ruin of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cities will always be the focus of terrorists and warmongers who seek to do the most harm with limited resources.

Mother Nature is another source of urban vulnerability. In Northeastern Colorado where I used to live, tornadoes were the main natural cause of concern. I remember one trip I made out to the small agricultural community of Akron (near the Kansas and Nebraska borders). There was a tornado in the area that particular day and many of the citizens were in their cars and trucks looking to get a good picture of it. I have no memory of any damage done. Perhaps there was. But the overall attitude was noticeably free of worry.

In contrast, the town of Windsor, Colorado where we lived experienced a tornado some years later (after we had moved away) that was experienced very differently. The tornado itself was not any bigger, as I recall, than the Akron tornado but it bounced around town and caused a great deal of damage. The house we had previously owned was hit directly and the garage was ruined. Two of the trees I planted years before were snapped in two. People were worried and afraid - and understandably so. A tornado in a city is a very dangerous thing.

Or consider the current situation of the Northwest Coast of the United States. Recent findings are showing a great deal more geological stress building up along the Cascadia Fault than was previously expected. This stress involves a stretch of coast running from northern California north past Vancouver in an area that used to be considered fairly stable. Now it is known to be a fault similar to the ones that caused the recent Sri Lanka and Japanese tsunamis. The worry (and it is a real one) is that this fault may rupture at any time. It is now known to have a periodicity of around 300 years with the last one having occurred about 300 years ago. It goes without saying that there are several cities along this coast that are vulnerable. Unfortunately, not all of them have made sufficient preparations.

Civil unrest is yet another vulnerability of cities. Drug deals and their associated gang violence are only a modern variation on a theme that is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah. In some instances all it takes is a traffic jam to start a riot. But consider the situation of impending weather. How many times have store shelves been emptied because of a looming blizzard. When these sorts of things happen for more than just a day or two, it invariably happens that stores are broken into and crime escalates.

Then there is the long history of inflation and hyperinflation where the purchasing power of money becomes difficult or even impossible. In such cases trade networks begin to be controlled by gangs and city life becomes a jungle. In the West we hardly think of this eventuality anymore because of the many fortunate decades we have enjoyed living with relative economic security. We should be wise enough to take a longer historical perspective.

How close we were a couple of years ago to a major shut-down may never be known. But consider the facts. Financial institutions were going bankrupt on a weekly (even on a daily) basis. Many businesses were unable to get credit. Grocery stores and transport companies were feeling the heat as gas prices began to skyrocket. A chain of events starting with limited food could have easily lead to mob rule. Fortunately this didn't happen. But I know that several people were buying (or otherwise dusting off) guns just in case.

This was not the case among self-sufficient folks living in rural areas, many of whom have their own storage room of canned goods and other necessities. Of course many of us living in urban and suburban areas are also prepared in this way to one degree or another. But this doesn't change my overall argument: cities are more vulnerable than rural areas.

Now I suspect that this isn't going to change much of anything, at least for most of us. Cities are going to continue to get bigger and most of us are going to have to live with the vulnerability. But let's not be so naive as to think that nothing could be better than living the busy city life of technology and innovation. There are reasons to get out of town that transcend the rat-race. And if this isn't possible for your particular situation, then hopefully you will at least get ready for coming troubles.

Whether you live in Seattle and need to move to higher ground or in Los Angeles and need to buy heavier doors, it might pay to postpone the purchase of your next electronic toy and stock your pantry with a few more cans of stew. Much might depend on such simple precautions.


This month’s Scientific American is Volume 305 (number 3). For the imminent Northwest tsunami see Cascadia’s Fault by Jerry Thompson (published this year by Harper Collins).

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