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Seeking sustainable urban habitat for tomorrow’s ‘metro sapiens’

January 21, 2015

Generally speaking, cities are concentrated centers of resource consumption, waste generation, air pollution and other negative environmental impacts. But what if they weren’t?

Jason Vargo, an assistant scientist with the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison, studies the future of urbanization and the idea that, with the right planning, moving into cities could be a strategy toward a more sustainable future.

He presented a speech on the topic at a UW-Madison TEDx event in November.

Vargo says humans are at a unique and pivotal point in time. He notes that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, a figure expected to rise to 75 percent by the end of the century.

“We’re at a point where the majority of urban development that could exist in 100 years hasn’t even taken place yet,” says Vargo. “So that can be a giant opportunity.”

Vargo uses the term “metro sapien” to characterize city-dwellers of the future. He published a paper on the idea in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences in October.

“Maybe the existence of our species is going to depend on really embracing this urban character,” says Vargo. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are there ways the city structure could be supportive of the natural environment?’”

Vargo says composting is an easily relatable example of this because it takes an output of the city – waste – and turns it into an input for the environment: fertilizer for future food production.

He calls this a circular model, because the inputs and outputs are continuously supporting each other. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the city and the environment: the environment produces resources that enter the city, and the outputs then go back into the natural environment.

Vargo stresses the importance of viewing cities as part of nature.

“There’s almost no part of the globe now that humans don’t influence,” he says.

Vargo's accompanying slides from his talk can be viewed here.

The TEDx talk grew from an earlier presentation Vargo had given at an EcoTalks event hosted by the Nelson Institute. Vargo gave a three-minute presentation about the future of our species and the global population rapidly moving into cities. After he saw a positive response from the audience, he began to look for more venues in which to share his ideas.

Vargo found his inspiration for this area of study when he lived in Vietnam after college. Ho Chi Minh City’s organization and lifestyle was different than anything he had seen before, and it made him rethink urban planning.

And while he says we’ve made some advances toward greener living, Vargo says there is much more to be done.

“Right now, there’s no such thing as a sustainable city,” Vargo says. “It doesn’t exist. And everything I’m talking about depends on figuring out how to make it exist.”

Vargo believes there is hope for the future. He compares our current situation to that of Apollo 13.

“The mission was running low on fuel, life-support systems were failing, but the easiest way to get back and to change direction was to use the momentum and gravity – the forces that existed around them,” he explains. “In cities, we have a lot of momentum; now we need to see how we can use that momentum to solve some of the biggest problems and really take this in a new direction.”

Melanie Ginsburg is a senior majoring in journalism.