After spending four days in the hills of the English countryside, I can honestly say I’m glad to be home. Back to the rush of the city, back to the day-to-day, to deadlines and dealing with piles of washing. Don’t get me wrong. I love the countryside, I love nature – I am an environmental campaigner after all. However, there is something about city living that will mean I will probably always live in the city. In fact, it seems I’m not the only one. Today, cities are home to more than half of the world’s population and it is expected that 70 percent of the world population will be urban by 2050. That may seem an unsurprising observation but in 1900, only 14% of the world’s population were urbanites and in 1800, it was a tiny 3%. So the world’s certainly been through a big shift towards urbanisation.
It also happens that the rise of urban living coincides with industrialisation which has led to the rise of the environmental degradation which we see around us. All this begs the simple question: is a return to nature, a return to rural living, the solution to all our problems? Would abandoning our grey, concrete cities for the green, lush rolling hills of the countryside save us? Some would say an emphatic ‘yes’. After all, cities consume more than 65% of the world’s energy and emit 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Islamic scholars have also pointed out that the environmental problems of today stem from a disconnection with nature and its sacredness. As such, returning to nature and living amongst it would no doubt rebuild our connection to its importance for our continued existence.
The hippies of the 1960s – who influenced modern environmentalism – took part in the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement which saw thousands leave the city to make a home in wilder environs. Many turned their backs on modernity with its endless competition, rampant consumerism and rising pollution to reconnect with nature. They wanted to grow their own food, to milk a cow and earn a contentment and self-sufficiency that money can’t buy. I can personally see why so many people were attracted to the back-to-the-land movement – it’s liberating and empowering. But in a sense it’s also a form of escapism, like running away from the mess of the city and not looking back, and it is worth noting that many failed at their romanticised escapades, returning to the conveniences of city and suburban living.
During my short holiday in the hills of the English countryside, I loved the long walks, the physicality of it, seeing fish in running streams and sheep grazing in fields as well as farmers hardened by the elements. Looking out of the cottage window after a long day of walking, I was amazed by the complete darkness – the complete void felt in empty fields and forests. I also knew that this was a holiday, a break from the norm, and that life in the countryside is not for me. Like most people on this planet, I want to live in a city. Does that mean I am automatically a polluter?
According to the UN, cities (in principle) actually offer a more favourable setting for resolving environmental problems as it’s easier to deliver education, health care and other services more efficiently than in less densely populated areas. The density of urban life can also “relieve pressure on natural habitats and areas of biodiversity”. Cities can certainly help citizens make more environmentally friendly choices. In cities, there is the option to use public transport, to cycle or even walk which means we can often choose to be greener. I am also under no illusion that just because you live in nature you will care for it more. Indeed most of the people living in the English countryside were driving around in huge gas-guzzling 4x4s and almost everyone had a driving licence as that was the only practical way to get around.
However, there is something missing from urban life – a direct connection with nature. So the question is how do we get urbanites to connect with nature without having to rush to live in it and disturb its natural biodiversity? The Qur’an talks about gardens of paradise, of running streams and the importance of growing plants and I think that’s where we find our solutions.
Urban gardens such as those you find in Andalusia in southern Spain are the perfect example of urban living and green retreats. With their running streams and fragrant orange blossom they help connect humans to nature, its beauty and also its importance. They are also located in the heart of the city with access for all those surrounding it. Urban life may not be synonymous with green spaces but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can’t rely on retreats to the countryside to be the only way that urbanites connect with nature; we have to bring it right into their homes, schools, hospitals (in Granada, there was a garden in the centre of an old hospital!) and parks.
Back home, after a long day of meetings and writing, I looked out at the bustling city I call home and saw an entire skyline of lights, a shimmering sky animated with life, and realise it is startlingly different to the one I saw in the countryside. Then I remind myself that I’m still looking out at the same sky.
Urbanisation – The Facts:
• Urban areas generate more than 90% of the global economy.
• Urban areas will expand by more than 29,000 soccer fields every day for the next 18 years.
• There are 1 billion more urban dwellers every 13 years, a rate twice as fast as just 30 years ago.
• There are more than 400 cities with over 1 million people and 19 cities with over 10 million people.
Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with a special interest in environmental issues and the Muslim world. She is also the Eco-Islam editor at GreenProphet.com which is leading news site on green issues in the Middle East. You can see more of her work at arwafreelance.com and follow her on twitter @arwa_journalist