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Classroom Resources: Urban Myths

By Jonah Lehrer
January-March 2008 / Vol. 9 No. 1

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Discussion Questions

  1. What are our typical conceptions of the environmental impact and resource consumption of cities? How does this article challenge these assumptions?
  2. In order to understand the technical aspects of this article, go through it and identify all the terms you do not understand, and look them up. What, for example, are economies of scale? What is a fractal network? What are some examples of the innovation cycle in a city near you? How can you measure the metabolism of a city?
  3. The author makes the case that “cities are bastions of environmentalism… because people who live in densely populated places lead environmentally friendly lives.”  Is this statement always true? Are there instances where concentrated population centers are not environmentally friendly?
  4. Apply your knowledge of conservation. Does this article justify increasing urbanization? Consider how the concept of the ecological footprint relates to this topic.
  5. Is there a point at which cities stop growing?  How does the rise and fall of historical cities fit in to the theory presented in this article?

Further Information

  • UNESCO – Sustainable Urbanization

Urban ecology in the News

  • Urban Ecology: Taking Measure of the Coming Megacity’s Impact (Science Daily, February 14th, 2008):
  • Life in the Fast Lane (Chicago Life, May 28th, 2007):
  • Choosing a Place to Live (urban innovation) (U.S. News and World Report, February 14th, 2008):

Peer-reviewed Literature

  • Ash, C. et al. Special Feature: Reimagining cities.  Science 319:739.
  • Batty, M.  2007.  The size, scale, and shape of cities.  Science 319:769-771.
  • Bettencourt, L.M.A et al.  2007.  Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(17): 7301-7306.
  • Decker, E.H. et al. 2000.  Energy and material flow through the urban ecosystem.  Annual Review of Energy and the Environment.  25:685-740.
  • Grimm, N.B. et al.  2008.  Global change and the ecology of cities.  Science 319:756-760.
  • West, G.B. et al. 2007. A general model for the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology. Science, 276:122-6.

Key Concepts

  • Metabolism
  • Urban metabolism
  • Urban studies
  • Economies of scale
  • Innovation cycle
  • Sustainable urbanization
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