Published on Sustainable Cities

Love and the City: Happy Valentine’s Day

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Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment PlantUrbanists are quick to champion the benefits of cities and how they drive economic growth, education, health improvements, and if built and managed well are the best way to achieve ‘sustainable development.’ But rarely do we talk about how cities nurture and encourage love, not to mention great parties, rock and roll, and all those passionate sporting events.

Cities don’t make love possible, but they sure do make it easier. Cities are all about connections, opportunities and logistical challenges. Take Valentine’s Day and the ‘average guy’ in the US. He will spend about $168 this year to celebrate, and woo, his love (women spend about half that). Over the last six weeks about 700 million fresh cut flowers passed through Miami International to be processed at one of the 23 chilled warehouses within five miles of the airport. Making sure no pests or contraband were brought in with the flowers required several thousand US Customs and Agriculture officers working round the clock.

Valentine’s flowers in the US come mainly from Colombia and Ecuador (about a third are roses for the serious romantic). The flowers are distributed almost entirely on just one day, making Valentine’s Day the largest logistical challenge for any florist.

For Valentine’s night about $3.6 billion will be spent on restaurant dinners in the US, helping to lead to the gifting of about $4 billion in jewelry. Love will follow.

Cities are the catalysts for most of our celebrations. Valentine’s Day is thought to have its origins to a city – Rome – where Saint Valentine was martyred around 270 CE. The patron saint of lovers story led to the exchange of cards in the UK in the 1880s. This was more commercialized by the US and Canada in the mid Twentieth Century. Valentine’s Day is now quickly globalizing through the world’s cities, especially the romantic ones.

For the alternative romantic who wants to buck the commercial aspects of Valentine’s Day, Jim Pynn, superintendent of the Newton Creek Sewage Plant in New York City has the perfect idea. This Valentine’s Day the weekly tours of the sewage plant are specially designed for lovers. Every couple gets a few Hershey Kisses and an experience that they can talk about for a lifetime.

Cities pose enormous logistical challenges: distributing food and flowers, collecting and processing waste, growing local economies, and providing security for residents. A good city provides these services with most people oblivious to the complexities and challenges associated with the tasks. This lets the city resident focus on more important things – like falling in love. Happy Valentine’s Day; with love from your city.

Editor’s Note: Dan’s Valentine’s Day blog refers to recent news reports of a special Valentine’s Day tour being organized by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection at Newtown Creek, NYC’s largest wastewater treatment plant. For those interested in learning more about the tour and booking their place on it, we recommend you first read this. For the rest, you will miss one of the highlights of the tour: the plant’s giant egg-shaped digesters (see picture below), which breaks down the waste into harmless sludge and gas.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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