Rod Oram: What about the cities?

Rod Oram writes in his weekly column that our environmental problems in urban areas are just as intense as those in rural areas. But they are different and poorly understood, as this election campaign shows.

When cockies get angry with townies for pushing swimmable rivers, for example, they accuse townies of being hypocrites. Just look at the state of urban rivers and streams!

Right idea. Wrong target.

Many urban waterways are a mess. But they account for barely 2 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams. The problems with water are overwhelmingly rural.

But we townies are hypocrites for damaging our urban environment. We plan badly, use land wastefully, underinvest in homes, infrastructure, civic amenities and environmental systems, and devalue our landscapes, coasts and water – fresh and salt.

We criticise cockies for high nitrate levels in water. Well, our emissions of nitrogen oxides from vehicles are second only to Mexico’s in the OECD.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re failing to reap the deeper economic benefit of fast-growing urban areas. Wages are higher than in rural areas but productivity and wage growth is equally sluggish.

The reason is most of our urban economic activity comes from meeting the needs of the local population rather than producing high value, sophisticated products and services to sell to the world. Barely 15 percent of Auckland’s economic activity, for example, has such a desirable profile.

When cities work well, they are powerful hubs for productivity, job creation, and innovation. This is known as the agglomeration effect. Globally, cities account for 80% of GDP. But they also account for 70 percent of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the work of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Thus the challenge is to design, build and run cities in ways that maximise the economic benefits and minimise the environmental impact. The two work hand-in-hand, though. An attractive built-environment, which uses natural resources wisely and is well served by public transport, is a delightful place to live and work.

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