The Pope as urban critic

The latest encyclical from Pope Francis includes commentary on large cities in the third world:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the pope’s new encyclical on climate change is its commentary on the rapid growth of cities in the developing world, a phenomenon the pontiff lacerates as dehumanizing.

Early in the document, the pope observes: “Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

He blasts “green” neighborhoods that are open to the privileged, not the poor. “Frequently,” he writes, “we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”…

As if offering an alternative to the vapid isolation of the trophy skyscrapers of China and Dubai, the pope’s encyclical springs from the idea of “integral ecology,” which argues that care for the environment and the welfare of human beings are inseparable.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,'” the pope states, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Megacities in the developing world often do have huge environmental problems – see Planet of Slums for an evocative look at the use of land and where waste goes. The Pope’s comments regarding nature and cities seem to be rooted in economic inequality. If you are wealthy, you can purchase small pieces of nature, escape harmful environmental effects (like living new power plants or polluting uses in American cities), and afford a life of consumerism where the waste you produce in a “throwaway culture” (a phrase Pope Francis has used before) is sent somewhere else. Yet, does this speak to a broader lack of interest in big cities where people are “deprived of physical contact with nature”? A more sprawling city that provides more space for nature may exacerbate economic inequalities (it can be more expensive to live near the core) as well as reduce the economics of scale that modern big cities might provide (using less land and energy per person with higher densities).

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