Humans Are Becoming City-Dwelling “Metro Sapiens”

To achieve sustainability, the human species needs to embrace its urban side, argues public health researcher Jason Vargo

Metro Market
Hunting and gathering, Metro sapien-style, in Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market. Robert Mullan/incamerastock/Corbis

Cities have been around for thousands of years, since the first were settled in Mesopotamia between 4000 and 3000 B.C. But only over the last several centuries have humans moved into cities en masse. Now more than half the world's population can be found in urban areas. "Cities are very much the dominant habitat of our species," writes Jason Vargo in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

Vargo, a public health scientist and urban planner at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Global Health Institute, argues that humans, at least in current population numbers, can no longer survive in solely rural lifestyles. To live sustainably, people need to embrace their inner urbanites—and recognize our species not as Homo sapiens, but "Metro sapiens". Vargo spoke with about this audacious proposal and what it means for our future on Earth:

Are city dwellers—Metro sapiens—fundamentally different from people living in the country?

No. I don't think so. But the reason I use that term is that it embraces this idea that to make it on this planet we're going to have to adopt urbanism to help us minimize our environmental impact on the planet. We're only going to do that if we become Metro sapiens. Homo sapiens, the way that we're doing it right now, probably won't survive. Though we don't see cities as natural, part of my reasoning behind putting "metro" into our species name is to get us to think about how humans have been living in settlements of some kind for a long time now, and maybe that is part of what's natural for us.

Why are cities, which are the source of many environmental problems, our future?

It's easy to look at cities and think, well, that's a real scar on the natural landscape. But if we're talking about how a million people are organizing, you can't have everyone living on a single plot of a land with a yard and a tree. You need some sort of denser organization, to conserve the land outside of the cities and also reduce energy use inside cities.

Those demand-side benefits are important, because those strategies are not talked about very much. When we hear about national energy policy, it's often about increasing efficiency of devices or supply of energy. But people that live in New York City, for example, drive less because they don't have cars. This is something that David Owen talks about in the book Green Metropolis. He calls it "embodied efficiency". The vertical living of New York City actually has this embodied efficiency that makes energy use in our daily lives less.

Not every city is like that, though, and even New York has its downsides. Which characteristics of urban life should we be adopting?

It's not just density but intensity, not just quantity but quality, not just location but connectivity. So it's not only having a service nearby, but it's being able to get to that service and access that service. Places need to be high quality. They need to be thoughtful and be places where people want to take ownership and spend time in. If they're not, people disregard them and allow criminal activities to go on. We want people to be outside and socializing, creating communities, being neighbors.

Are there any cities that others should be emulating?

There's no sustainable city on the planet, so it can be a bit difficult to tell people that we really need to embrace cities as a strategy moving forward, but at the same time there's no perfect model. Just from a gestalt perspective, I've really enjoyed spending time in … Vancouver. I thought it was really impressive the way the city related to its surrounding environment. Vancouver seemed to have embraced urban strategies, like vegetation on roofs and in right-of-ways to minimize water pollution and maintain water quality.

But there are other parts beyond just what you see, such as the way that the government works and the way neighbors are engaged in decision-making, that also matter. If you look at the best examples of sustainable cities, you'll see that there have been communities that expressed the values of environmental sustainability or mobility or equity decades ago, and you can chronicle the legislation and the actions and then the physical construction that have been in line with those values.

What does placing even more of the population in urban environments do for nature?

It gets easier to preserve the land outside of urban spaces if more people are living more urban lives. So higher degrees of urbanism, because each person is consuming less land, can be really crucial for preserving wild places. Also, if you're working on something like the ecosystem of North Woods or the Central Sands, which is important for farming here in Wisconsin, you're not really seeing the whole picture if you don't see the connection to urban areas. The metabolism of cities demands resources from those areas.

With half the population now living in cities and much more expected, that is something we should all be thinking about. Much of the urban development that will exist in 100 years hasn't happened yet, so there is great opportunity, especially in fields like urban ecology. If we can figure out characteristics or components of cities that not only improve our daily quality of life but also improve the maintenance of these more natural areas, then I think we'll be better off.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.