Why I Live in a City

Sometime during college, I was convinced that cities were inherently unsustainable and capitalism was ugly. So I was going to become a rural subsistence farmer. My hope was that by being a subsistence farmer, I would live a more sustainable life that would not be subjected to market pressures. I would then showcase my lifestyle to others and inspire them to embark on a similar path.

I am no longer thinking of becoming a subsistence farmer. To sustain a 2,000 calorie per day diet, I would need to maintain around 5,000m^2 of land, which would be mostly filled with grains and other high calorie crops. I would spend most days maintaining the farm without much to fall back on if I ever became sick or injured. And mostly likely it would not be any more environmentally friendly than my life as of now. Based on data from the EIA 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey [1], rural populations consume more energy per capita than urban populations. Anecdotal evidence also suggests increased environmental footprint: gasoline costs to visit others; pipes, cables, and wires for water, electricity, and internet; and gravel or dirt trucked in to maintain roads to civilization would all contribute.

The global trend is urbanization, and I cannot see a reason for the trend to reverse. According to the UN report on World Urbanization Trends 2014, 66% of the world's population is projected to be urban, up from 30% in 1950. Knowledge spillovers and economies of scale will drive people to aggregate in larger cities. In short, I am now on a quest to find ways to sustainably live in a city.

So why did I originally believe that cities were inherently unsustainable? Cities have many common issues including congestion, pollution, and unaffordable housing. With some cities requiring masks on some day to breathe due to pollution and other cities having lines of homeless tents, I found it hard to believe that city dwelling would be the ideal way of living. But recently I have become hopeful that a lot of issues with cities can be solved and that the remaining issues can be seen in a positive light.

The book Order without Design by Alain Bertaud has drastically changed how I view a city. Essentially a city is a giant labor market. One metric of a city is how many jobs residents can access within an hour: in general, the higher that number, the more productive the city will be. While a city is more than a job market, such gathering of people with complementary skills is what led to the ability to do real-time video calling across the world and medical innovations that have decreased infant mortality. Issues such as congestion, pollution, and unaffordable housing are byproducts of allowing masses to interact with each other. A tempting solution is to try to get rid off the byproducts by separating the population but this goes counter to why the city collected in the first place. Instead we need to improve on transportation technology to increase the radius in which people can reach within a set period of time and reduce regulations that prevent an increase of housing supply.

So while I have decided to live in a city, I am not sure of a concrete path from there. I have attempted to create a decentralized automated urban farm operation with the conclusion that I do not think I can reasonably compete with existing markets with the technology I was planning to deploy. I am now prototyping a city simulator in hopes of illustrating the impact of various zoning regulations. I will see where the wind takes me.

[1] https://www.eia.gov/consumption/residential/data/2015/c&e/pdf/ce1.1.pdf
[2] https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf

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