thoughts on our urban future

Book Review – Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change

Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer

This 2009 collaboration between three senior academic researchers examines the idea of a ‘resilient city’.  They define resilience as lasting, making it through crisis, requiring inner strength and resolve, as well as a storng physical infrastructure and built environment.  They suggest that fear is what undermines resilience, and they give many examples throughout history that have led to urban deterioration based on fear.  The authors suggest there is a new fear, the threat of resource depletion and fossil fuels that should be motivating change now. Although this threat is slow moving, they suggest it can undermine continued urban growth and so the book  focuses on how we can make our cities more resilient to this pressing threat.

The book begins by outlining a vision for a resilient city under the guise of reducing oil dependence.  The authors suggest it’s a political necessity, it will reduce impacts on the environment, it will reduce impacts on human health, will result in greater equity and economic gain, will make cities less economically vulnerable, and will likely result in more peaceful cities.  They sum this up simply by stating they believe  resilient city will be a better place to live.

The next part of the book deals with illustrating the problem of climate change and peak oil, with more focus on the impact of peak oil, which is probably good for those who still debate climate change.  Of course those same people still debate peak oil as well, so I’m not sure that this information will make much of a difference to non-believers.  To those already on board, it repeats known facts and supplies links to data sources.

The real meat of the book begins in the next section where four future scenarios of cities are presented.  The book does not discuss the significance of using the scenario method, which is perhaps a negative, though this would be more of interest to the academically minded.  Scenario planning is a structured way of considering the future, usually set across two axis to push the boundaries of possible futures.  The idea being if you force yourself to consider the extremes, you are more likely to be prepared for the actual, but importantly, they help to allow preparation for unexpected changes.  However, this is not the focus of the four scenarios used.  Instead, they are categorized as Collapse, Ruralized, Divided, and Resilient with descriptive definitions of what could happen as the oil runs out and asserts the notion that we should be directing the future towards Resilient.

The next section provides a vision for resilient cities where the authors identify seven key elements that they say are essential to a resilient city and then discuss in substantial detail the paradigm shift that will be required to attain the key elements using current examples as well as citing the work of other prominent sustainability researchers.  Although some of the visionary element being discussed can be difficult to imagine, I believe it is in part the purpose of this book to think big- because the problem being faced is big.  Anything less than a visionary outlook will not bring about the sort of substantial changes that the book is advocating for.  The seven key themes they identify are:

  • Renewable Energy City: Urban areas will be powered by renewable energy technologies from the region to the building level.
  • Carbon Neutral City: Every home, neighborhood, and business will be carbon neutral.
  • Distributed City: Cities will shift from large centralized power, water, and waste systems ot small-scale and neighborhood-based systems.
  • Photosynthetic City: The potential to harness renewable energy and provide food and fiber locally will become part of urban green infrastructure.
  • Ec0-Efficient City: Cities and regions will move from linear to circular or closed-loop systems, where substantial amounts of their energy and material needs are provided from waste streams.
  • Place-Based City: Cities and regions will understand renewable energy more generally as a way to build the local economy and nurture a unique and special sense of place.
  • Sustainable Transport City: Cities, neighborhoods, and regions will be designed to use energy sparing by offering walkable, transit-oriented options for all supplemented by electric vehicles.

The next chapter of the book chooses to zero in on transportation specifically.  I have had some interesting conversations with people before who assert that it is not urban form that is the key to our more sustainable future, but rather transportation.  And that urban from flows from transportation choices.  Personally I feel that it’s somewhat chicken and egg, but it is without a doubt that understanding and adapting transportation systems will be critical to addressing future peak oil and climate change issues.  Similarly to the previous section, the book outlines seven elements of a vision for more resilient transport and discusses each in great detail again using current examples and current research and facts.  The seven elements identified are:

  • A transit system that is faster than traffic in all major corridors.
  • Viable centers along the corridors that are dense enough to service a good transit system.
  • Walkable areas and cycling facilitates that can mean easy access by non-motorized means, especially in these centers.
  • Services and connectivity that can guarantee access at most times of the day or night without time wasted.
  • Phasing out freeways and phasing in congestion taxes that are directed back into the funding of transit and walk/cycle facilities as well as traffic-calming measures.
  • Continual improvement of vehicle engines to ensure emissions, noise, and fuel consumption are reduced, especially a move to electric vehicles.
  • Regional and local governance that can enable visionary green transport plans and funding schemes to be introduced.

The final section of the book concludes with proposing ten strategic steps toward a resilient city.  They highlight the need to involve all parts of the community- the government, businesses, professional practitioners, community groups, and individual households.  As with the previous two sections, the ten steps are stated and then addressed in detail.  They are:

  • Set the Vision, Prepare an Implementation Strategy.  This may be common sense, but it is frustrating how few cities actually have a vision or a plan.  This step is critical to coordinate the thinking of the many participants and actors who will be required to bring about urban change.
  • Learn on the Job.  Again, seemingly common sense but often neglected in governance, the preparation for, acceptance of, and adoption of learning and change.  Policies will need to be reviewed and modified as new knowledge and data becomes available.  Unlike many systems, this does not mean ‘throwing it all out and starting over again’, rather adopting a strategy for learning and change while enabling decision making now, even though all of the data may not be available.
  • Target Public Buildings, Parking, and Road Structures as Green Icons.  Otherwise known as ‘guide by example’.  It’s all well and good to put the onus on the household and business, but if government isn’t being seen to commit, it will be almost impossible to bring a possibly skeptical public along with it.  Government can use it’s own assets to respond to the naysayers and show that ‘Yes we can’.  It is also a side effect that investment leads to further development, so government investing initially will contribute funding to manufacturers and consultants who specialize in these areas, which will eventually lower the prices of these services for everyone.
  • Build TOD, POD, and GOD together.  Otherwise known as transit oriented development, pedestrian oriented development, and green oriented development.  Significant for reducing reliance on cars, it is again somewhat common sense that without good pedestrian routes and correctly placed amenities, the potential good of a TOD could be lost.  As for green, there is no excuse today when designing new developments not to take advantage of known orientation issues or investing in smart infrastructure (or ensuring that upgrades can be made easily in the future).
  • Transition to Resilient Infrastructure Step by Step.  In this case referring to road, sewer, water, buildings, transit- these systems must always be maintained.  But this is about going back to the vision and having a long term strategy that is transformative and not just the status quo.
  • Use Prices to Drive Change Where Possible.  The book correctly notes that many of the direct and indirect consequences of our consumption and other personal and collective decisions are hidden from us.  Hidden costs and subsidies are just two examples.  The government has the opportunity to adjust such decision making through financial means.  While this will obviously prove unpopular in many areas, the challenge will be to make choices that are currently unpopular, popular.  Find ways to encourage desirable behavior and make people feel good about it while penalizing less desirable behavior.
  • Rethink Rural Regions with Reduced Oil Dependence.  Cities cannot exist without the bio-regions that they depend on.  Rural areas have become highly dependent on diesel for their work and processing, not to mention all of the transportation.  The book discusses some alternatives for transportation (including the use of air ships) and focuses on a sort of localism to reduce mileage and better connect local and regional farms and producers/processors with local consumers.
  • Regenerate Households and Neighborhoods.  As many of the buildings that we will be inhabiting in the future are standing and occupied today, there needs to be a massive push for energy efficient retrofit.  But the book also suggests this means more neighborhood and community based initiatives to address bigger issues that will ultimately benefit local residents while reducing fossil fuel dependence.  This includes re-thinking post war car oriented suburban developments that the authors call ‘grayfields’ suggesting that they can be transformed through extensive neighborhood based plannign initiatives.
  • Facilitate Localism.  All of which above suggests there needs to be more action on the ground in specific places with people looking and specific issues- location, climate, density, transit, population, etc.  And that coming full circle to point one, a vision or plan must be established.  It must be personal enough that it speaks to the individual household or business, yet it must be big enough to encompass the wider neighborhood or community.  The book goes on to suggest that only through strong local power will subsequent demand for local products and manufacturing emerge.
  • Use Approvals to Regulate for the Post-Oil Transition.  And finally, the book suggests that one of the biggest impediments to creating dense, mixed-use projects is zoning regulations that continue to force separate uses and low-density development.  This will also be true for the integration of better infrastructure oriented structures (energy generation, energy storage, waste and water processing) into local communities.  The book also suggests that this sort of change must be supported by national and international levels of regulation- specifically when looking at automobile standards.

The book concludes by suggesting that in the future, some cities will collapse and some cities will succeed.  However, it sets out a starting point for attempting to turn the tide.  The conclusion reiterates that having a plan is the first step for short, medium, and long term scenarios and that transformational change will only be accomplished through a series of calculated steps.

I thought this book provided a well thought out example of future thinking and how it leads to decision making.  I was impressed with the number of examples and references cited although there are some I think are over used (like Vauban) and some that were not mentioned at all (like PlaNYC).  There was certainly a skew towards industrialized nations in my opinion, even with all the discussion of TOD development, I think a book being written for developing nations with rapidly expanding cities should be focused somewhat differently.  Still, I recommend this book as a thoughtful resource for considering the potential impact of peak oil on our urban environments and for providing an example of what can be done to address it.

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