Economics serving society

What impacts do urbanization and nature disconnection have on environmental quality?

Short permalink to this article:

Emeline Bezin, Ingmar Schumacher

JPEG - 75 kb

The increasing urbanization across the world has led to rising incomes which in turn tends to lead to larger investments in environmental quality (1). At the same time, this unprecedented transition into cities has led to a progressive reduction in human-nature interactions. Beyond the economic field, some social scientists note that this ’extinction of experience’ will lead to ’a cycle of disaffection that can have disastrous consequences’ (2). They argue that this lack of exposure to nature when young leads to a lower preference towards the environment when grown up, resulting in a lower willingness to invest in nature, and therefore lower environmental quality in the future. If this preferences effect which manifests itself through a disconnection from nature dominates the pure income effect, then urbanization could have devastating consequences for the distant future.

In this article, Emeline Bezin and Ingmar Schumacher propose a unified theory of urbanization and intergenerational preferences change to examine the trade-off between the positive income effect that urbanization has on environmental quality and the potentially negative preferences effect through disconnection from nature. They develop a general equilibrium model of rural-urban migration in which individuals move towards urban centers trading off economic arguments (the productivity of labor being higher in the city) with proximity to nature. The current urbanization rate in turn affects preferences for environmental quality of the new born generation as children who are born in the city have a higher chance to lose connection and thus lower willingness to pay for nature. At each period of time, the proportion of individuals who are ’connected to nature’ (CTN) affects a urbanization rate and a level of environmental quality (individuals vote for environmental protection policies). The urbanization rate in turn influences connectedness to nature at the subsequent period. In this framework, the authors characterize the long-run level of environmental quality and CTN putting an emphasis on the relationship between urbanization and environmental quality in the long-run. They highlight a non-monotonic relationship between urbanization and the environment in the long-run. When the equilibrium urbanization rate is not too high, then rising urbanization (e.g., increasing labor productivity in the city) is accompanied by environmental quality improvements as claimed by Edward Glaeser. However, when urbanization is strong, higher urbanization has severe negative consequences for the environment. This is because the positive income effect of urbanization outweighs the negative effect from the loss of connectedness to nature if (and only if) the long-run proportion of connected individuals is high which is true when urbanization is not too strong. In a second time, the authors enrich the theory by including a ’cultural transmission channel’ assuming that socialization to environmental attitudes is due to family socialization actions and role modeling within the society. Under certain conditions, the relationship between urbanization and the long-run level of environmental quality becomes positive. Just as in the previous framework, when urbanization rises, the size of the rural area reduces so that the fraction of individuals who adopt CTN through experiences into nature is lower. However, strong urbanization also translates into a growing number of CTN parents and role models in the city so that the fraction of urban children who adopt CTN through socialization increases. The second effect dominates when the cultural transmission channel is sufficiently effective which is true if for example the cost of socialization is low. In that case, urbanization enables the rise of an environmental culture into the city. This result stresses the importance of considering the joint determination of urbanization and preferences change when assessing the relationship between urbanization and the environment. In this context, environmental education policy (which reduces the cost of socialization to environmental preferences) are key as they can make urbanization environmentally sustainable.

(1) Glaeser, Edward, Triumph of the City, Pan, 2011.
(2) Pyle, Robert M, The Thunder Tree, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Original title of the article: Connectedness to nature, urbanization and the environment.
Published in: upcoming

Photo credit: Maxim Usov (Shutterstock)