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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - North America

Urban areas

North America urbanized rapidly early in the 20th century under the combined pressures of population increases, immigration from other regions, and rural/urban migration. Later, the automobile and the rapid development of rail and road transportation networks led to a process of suburbanization, as wealthier inhabitants escaped the congestion and pollution of inner cities. By 1970 this settlement pattern, dependent on the automobile, accounted for between one-half and two-thirds of the US population (Greenwood and Edwards 1979). Large cities emerged along the eastern and western seaboards of the United States and along the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario.

In 1980, approximately 76 per cent of the population in Canada and the 74 per cent of the population in the United States lived in urban areas (United Nations Population Division 1997). Over the past 30 years, the rise in the percentage of population inhabiting urban centres has slowed significantly: the United Nations estimate for urban population for North America in the year 2000 is 77 per cent. Nevertheless, by the year 2020, the urban population in Canada is expected to be 81 per cent and in the United States 85 per cent (United Nations Population Division 1997).

Canada and the United States make up one of the wealthiest urban-industrial regions in the world and have been able to mitigate the most severe environmental impacts of dense population settlements. Substantial political and economic resources have been used to provide the infrastructure and technology for the delivery of potable water, adequate sanitation, wastewater removal, and solid and hazardous waste disposal. Many urban areas have managed to regulate and stabilize local air pollution problems despite the rise in vehicle emissions associated with urban sprawl and increased commuter distances.

 Production of municipal waste
  year total
(1000 tonnes)
per capita
Canada 1992 18 110 630
United States 1994 189 696 730
North America - 238 316 620

Source: OECD 1997


Yet the scale of economic growth associated with North American cities, and their reliance on high levels of energy and other resources, contribute significantly to many of the region's pollution and waste problems. North Americans, in fact, are the largest producers of municipal solid waste in the world. Between 1980 and 1995, the average North American produced 620 kg of such waste per year, compared with 430 kg per year for the average European (OECD 1997). Waste reduction, reuse and recycling efforts in the United States are gradually reducing the quantities of municipal waste being incinerated and landfilled: the proportion of waste recovered tripled between 1970 and 1993 to 22 per cent. Recycling rates of products such as glass and paper, however, are still low in comparison with most OECD countries (OECD 1996).

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