Why fleeing the city to escape disease and crime is a huge mistake.
▲ How do you feel about the suburbs?
This spring, the COVID epidemic slammed in New York City hard. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Hundreds of morgue trucks filled up with bodies. And in July, the New York Times ran an article about families fleeing the city to escape the pandemic.
On the opposite coast, Shark Tank investor, Robert Herjavec also fled the city and told CNBC "we're about to see the biggest exodus from cities in 50 years!"
Now, look, it's been a really stressful time for everybody, especially in the United States. But I just have to say, hold on a second! Is fleeing the city really the right thing to do?
I mean, in episodes, 14, 21 and several others, I've shown how suburbs and even rural homesteading have proven disastrous for the environment and for families. And bear in mind that cities like Seoul, Korea contained the virus no problem.
I mean, Seoul, Korea, which is bigger than New York City, with a population of nearly 10 million people, contained the virus without any lockdowns. Instead, it relied on instant testing, exhaustive contact tracing and quarantine centers.
So big cities are not the problem. The real problem is fear.
Why do we fear cities? Are these fears based in reality? And can we design cities with a whole lot less to fear?
▲ INTRO [music]
Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. Because it's not about politics, it's about design. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode 28, where I'll discuss what so many of us fear about cities and how we can allay those fears.
▲ Horrendous disaster
Suburbs, as I mentioned, are a horrendous disaster.
It's the worst possible design for the planet because cars and roads and parking lots and sidewalks and lawns pollute and destroy habitat, as detailed in Episode 2.
Suburbs are also the worst possible design for health, with their long commutes that create pollution and stress and, worst of all for people's health, lead to sedentary lifestyles, as described in Episode 4.
The suburbs are the worst possible design for families: again, the long commutes lead to isolation, so parents and children hardly ever see each other, as detailed in episode 9.
Suburbs were also invented to express the design intent of racial segregation as described in Episode 27.
Also, in episode 9, I described how suburbs are the worst possible design for financial security. Suburban homes cost too much to maintain, and they run up a ton of car expenses too, because one car for each licensed driver costs you something like $8-$20 thousand a year for each of probably several vehicles in your garage.
Suburban homes are so out of whack with ecology that sooner or later, they are bound to start losing value because, as urban theorist Jane Jacobs has pointed out, economics is basically a subset of ecology.
So if you hate the planet and social equity and your family's health and wealth, then by all means move to the suburbs!
▲ Run away!
I know, I know, the unfortunate reality is that we live in a world of self interest and fear. And these are very real. We're afraid of the dirty city with all its disease and crime and pollution and people of lower social status that you don't want to deal with. And yep, that is racism again!
But it's real, isn't it?
Now, this is a design show, and I'm chagrined to report that even permaculture founder Bill Mollison, in his Designer’s Manual, wrote about cities as “mainly disorganized on every level, effective anarchy and crime and social isolation in many areas.”
But this fear is blind. The anarchy, isolation and disorganization speak to a lack of design. That's where permaculture and certainly Edenicity comes in. But before we get to the design, let's examine the perceived threats of disease and crime that our fears are based on.
We’ll start with disease.
Coronavirus hit cities first, we all know that. It makes sense. That's where the major air and seaports are. But remember: SARS, Ebola, and many other diseases originated in rural locations. So it's not like these diseases are necessarily all coming from cities.
If you've read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you'll be struck by how many mystery diseases people suffered from throughout the series. The point is that even in the most idyllic and rural locations, people are never far from disease.
With that in mind, let's look at the data for the current pandemic. At this point, we're going to focus on the United States. On average here in August, the more urban states still have more cases than the rural ones. But the raw data looks like a wild dartboard. There's so much variation, it's unsafe to make decisions based on urban versus rural.
For example, Mississippi and West Virginia are both about 50% rural, but Mississippi has five times as many cases and 10 times the deaths per 100,000 people as West Virginia. In other words, you're five times more likely to catch COVID in Mississippi than in West Virginia, and 10 times more likely to die of it, at least right now. Remember, epidemics come in waves.
It's just starting to hit rural and suburban areas even harder. In Mississippi right now, you're 50% more likely to catch COVID than in urban California and Urban Milwaukee.com announced July 17 2020 that COVID was growing fastest in the suburbs.
The problem with diseases spreading in rural or suburban locations is that they're deadlier.
Why is that? Well, for one, resources are more spread out. In rural locations, you can be 30 miles from the nearest hospital. This is bad news because, even in cities, lots of people have died of COVID-19 on the way to the hospital. It stands to reason that the death rate will be even higher in suburban and rural areas where it's a longer trip to the hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control take it a step further. According to the CDC, “people who live in rural areas are more likely than urban residents to die prematurely from all of the five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.”
The causes, according to that article, were that people living in these areas have less access to health care, less access to healthy food, they're more likely to have a number of unhealthy behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and sedentary lifestyles due to their dependence on cars. In the United States, the rural population is older and generally a little bit less educated, and less education correlates with a shorter lifespan.
The clear moral here is that fleeing the city generally doesn't work to avoid epidemics, at least not in the modern age.
▲ How Edenicity fights disease
What we should be doing instead is focusing on designing better cities.
Here's how Edenicity would fight disease. First of all, for epidemics it would follow the hard won best practices that South Korea learned from SARS and that the whole world is learning from COVID-19. Namely: having adequate staffing, which would mean at least 10 epidemiological investigators trained in contact tracing per city, plus pre-approval to roll out testing as soon as possible.
In the likely event that incarceration rates are very low, as discussed in Episode 26, the hotel-like cellblock could function as quarantine centers. 4,000 private rooms are available per city, and the peak demand for COVID quarantine in South Korea, the world's second hardest hit country early on, would only require 700 rooms per city, which would almost certainly be available for the purpose.
The next most important element in fighting disease is education. Here's how this correlates with better health: better educated people think critically and consider where information is coming from. They value professional research and don't easily fall prey to stupid online memes when making decisions. They're also more likely to take an active role in their healthcare decisions.
By providing universal education, we would have more educated people and therefore better health outcomes. In addition, as explained in Episode 4, Edenicity would provide a far better diet, significantly more exercise and dramatically less pollution than modern cities. So we end up with much stronger immune systems, which means less chance of getting sick and less severe illness when we do. This also makes free universal health care much easier to fund. And universal health care means that fewer people would die for lack of care.
Edenicity’s family cafe culture reduces risky behaviors such as smoking and drinking to excess, and increases social capital, meaning that people watch out for each other. The design is inherently intergenerational, and that decreases risks to the elderly, and in episode 16, I go into specific disease fighting strategies for Edenicity including its food system and public transport system.
So to summarize, when it comes to disease, there is no advantage and there may be disadvantages to fleeing the city and Edenicity should be way better than any city or suburb, or rural location today.
Now, let's talk about the other big fear that people have about cities, namely crime.
I think a lot of our perceptions come from movies, which fill our minds with, frankly, racist perceptions.
To give you an example of what I'm talking about, when I moved into my East Columbus neighborhood, I had to really slow down because the streets were filled with kids on bikes, kids playing basketball, most of them black. I passed lots of older apartments, townhouses and houses and lots of big old trees.
This was not like my Los Angeles story from Episode 27. There were no bars in the windows. There was no razor wire. The only bulldog I saw was playfully prancing around and yelping for affection. The homes were in decent repair. And I knew right away that this would be a wonderful place to live.
But you know something? The redlining that I mentioned in Episode 27 still persists. Cell phone service is noticeably worse here. Do you think maybe it's because it's a black neighborhood?
Whites have been fleeing inner city neighborhoods for at least 80 years. And they always blame it on crime.
But these days, it's really easy to Google a real time heat map of crime in any neighborhood. And when I did that, what I discovered was, sure enough, there are hotspots in East Columbus. But there's even hotter spots in some of the posh neighborhoods nearby. And where I live is fairly safe, teenagers and all.
So with that in mind, let's examine the crime data. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, (the FBI) in 2018, the suburbs in the United States had 5% less violent crime and 13% more property crime than cities.
Stop and think about that for a moment. In the suburbs, on average across the country, you’re only a tiny bit less likely to encounter violence, but you’re noticeably more likely to be robbed.
Meanwhile, rural areas had 19% less violent crime, and 27% less property crime. So we're done right? Forget the city. Forget the suburbs. You should move to a rural homestead because it's 20-30% safer, right?
Well, not so fast. The FBI strenuously cautions that some areas have more young or old people, more poor or rich people, or more people willing or unwilling to report a crime. And I can certainly vouch for that: when I lived in a rural part of Athens, Ohio, we had vandals hitting mailboxes all the time, we had people doing all kinds of crazy, no doubt illegal things with guns. There were all sorts of terrifying incidents of road rage, and people polluting in all kinds of ways that never got reported that I wouldn't hesitate to report if we were all in the city.
But of course, that's just my hearsay perception. Let's stick with the data.
Combing through the FBI tables, I noticed there was a huge variation from one city or town to the next. Although there are trends, population really doesn't tell you much about crime.
For example, Dallas, TX and San Diego, CA have about the same population: 1.4 million people. But in Dallas, you’re more than twice as likely to report a violent crime than in San Diego. Same size, wildly different crime rates. At the other extreme, Danville IL, is tiny: just 31,000 people, yet you’re more than 5 times as likely to report violent crime there as in San Diego, and 7 times more likely than in Elmyra, NY, population 27,000.
So although there is a trend toward more crime in larger cities, there are many really huge exceptions to this trend.
Now, while we're talking about crime, it's also important to talk about other physical hazards, namely accidents, because these are actually a much greater hazard than crimes.
I mean, I studied Aikido, a defensive martial art briefly when I was young. It was a great self defense. I didn't learn how to kick or hit, but I sure did learn how to take a fall. And this skill has served me well for decades. For every mugger I've met, I've probably slipped on a dozen patches of ice or banana peels, or tripped on a hundred cracks in the sidewalk. But hey, that's all right. I can take a fall!
According to a 2013 Time magazine article, accidental deaths outnumber homicides 15 to one. The article reported on a study that found the violent death rate—that is to say, the number of homicides + accidents—in rural areas, was 20% higher than in cities.
Now, given that rural areas had 19% less violent crime in 2018, that's a lot more accidents, and you're a lot farther from a hospital.
Now, the other thing that people worry about with cities is pollution. And I'll get into that next time.
But if none of this convinces you and you decide to homestead to flee the problems of the city, just realize that you are basically helping to create the suburbs. That's what happened to The Farm in Tennessee and many other intentional communities.
When I lived in Athens County, Ohio, I saw a lot of rural estates along country roads. These were big, new houses on giant bare lawns in the middle of nowhere. These are future suburbs. If you go to live there, just understand that you're going to raise the crime rate in the end, starting with property crime, which there was a lot of in my area and very little of it was reported.
I hope I've shown that the fears are really, at the very worst, overblown, and maybe even backwards.
▲ How Edenicity reduces crime
Let's talk about how Edenicity reduces crime. First of all Edenicity reduces the gap between the haves and have nots (bet you weren't really expecting that, huh?)
Here's what happens when that gap is big: I knew an activist who thought it was her duty to rob rich people: specifically the one percenters. To which I responded, "you'll never get the chance. The only people you'll ever get near are 99 percenters just like you. More likely you'll be robbed by somebody only a little poorer than you. Maybe they're mad at inequality just like you. Chances are they lost family members to hunger or preventable disease. So they're mad enough to rob someone, but they can't get near a really rich person. So if you have something they don't, and they're mad, they might snatch it from you because you're the only one they can reach."
And guess what? That's exactly what happened to my friend when she set down her iPhone briefly at a protest.
Edenicity takes a really unique strategy to reducing the gap between the haves and the have nots.
First of all, it's built as a mixed-income development throughout.
Second, it has a consistently progressive tax structure, which I described in Episode 25. And what I like about this is that it allows people to make a lot of money if they have a lot to contribute to society, but it doesn't last forever. The asset tax, otherwise known as a wealth tax, steadily and surely returns generational wealth to the commons.
That provides greater equity and safety nets such as free universal health care, free transportation, free education and a universal basic income that I described in episodes 4,12, 22 and 25.
So you never get the sense that people have so much more unearned wealth than you, while you can't even meet your basic needs.
Even Denmark, which still has very expensive automotive infrastructure, has implemented this for decades, with the result that its citizens have the same after-tax income as the United States on average, but they pay 19% higher taxes. So yes, that means their overall incomes are much higher.
And what they get in return for those higher taxes is free universal health care and free education from pre kindergarten through grad school.
Because of its innate efficiency, Edenicity can take this much, much further and use it to restore habitats, provide free transportation, and a generally much higher quality of public life than any city in the world right now.
Okay, so what have we learned today? First, the suburbs aren't any safer than cities in terms of disease and crime. Neither are rural homesteads when you count accidents. If you do get sick or hurt, you don't want to be far from help. So it makes NO sense to flee to the suburbs, or to a homestead.
Of course, there's always some developer who's grabbed some cheap land somewhere who will latch on to any convenient news item to sell it. Urban violence is the traditional go-to. COVID is the latest fad.
But even back in May, an article by Ben Rogers in the London Financial Times suggested the opposite. Rogers pointed out that the epidemic is getting people walking and biking a lot more. I can vouch for that: bikes are selling out even here in car-bound Columbus.
But more than that, it's getting people to rethink how they structure everything in their work and home lives. Design at some level is now on everyone's mind when it comes to cities. And that's why I'm hopeful.
Somewhere there must be some developments or urban redevelopments being planned that aren't total economic and ecological disasters. How can you tell which ones, if any, are legit? Simple. Just ask yourself this question:
“Can your whole family live there without a car?”
▲ Close [music]
If you enjoyed Episode 28, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. Did you know that you can share Edenicity on social media using the share link in most podcast players? Be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss how to live closer to nature in the city. I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.