Cities Must Become More Resilient to Survive

The idea that cities are greener than suburbs
has gotten a lot of attention lately. But a recently published book
argues that in a future of diminishing resources, cities themselves are
going to have to become much more efficient and inventive if they are
to be sustainable — indeed, if they are to survive at all.

The book is "Resilient Cities," by Peter Newman — the man who coined the term "automobile dependence" —  Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer. As Streetsblog Network member The Dirt
(the blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects) writes,
Newman and his colleagues say that some radical changes will be
necessary if the world’s cities are to avoid the worst-case scenarios
of division or collapse:

freiburg.jpgSolar Settlement, in Freiburg, Germany. Photo via Young Germany.

Cities"… presents a range of options to help adapt cities to lessen a
dependence on petroleum, and create more resilient urban areas. The
authors argue that the urban centers that may best survive a climate
and energy crisis are those that engage in long-term planning and
design for resiliency, and create sustainable, inter-connected modes of
transportation; invest in renewable energy technology and smart grids;
support walkable, high-density living; and provide for self-sufficient
food production and protection of urban biodiversity… "It is clear
that the changes needed for a resilient city are not just technology
substitutions, they are in the business paradigms, the culture of the
utilities, and the organization that can enable new ways of managing
our cities; every household needs to be a part of it."

According to Newman and his co-authors, "cities throughout
history have competed by examining innovations in other cities and
building upon them. This […] is the basis of wealth creation. We see
the the response to climate change and peak oil as the impetus for the
next burst of innovation." “Resilient Cities” also outlines a set of
specific recommendations for making existing cities more adaptable to
changes in climate and energy usage.

The authors write about many concrete models of cities such as Freiburg, Germany,
that are implementing the types of initiatives they deem necessary. But
will the world’s cities be able to act decisively in time to save
themselves? In the US, at least, they face some formidable obstacles. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Other food for thought from around the network: Orphan Road has a post on environmentalist NIMBY-ism; Bike Portland reports on signs of bikes going mainstream in that city; and Austin Contrarian weighs in on whether congestion tolls are regressive.

  • The authors of this book are long on ideas, but short on the politics and financials to get us where we need to be. It was sad to hear this Mr. Resilient Cities get laughed at by LA city officials when he suggested that the prima facia speed limit in an urban area be 30km/h (~21 mph) in a talk he gave in city hall a short time ago.

  • Wad

    Cities weaning themselves of petroleum is one giant policy change, one that will take a tremendous amount of capital not only to convert, but future gains to forgo because civilization hit its peak with petroleum.

    However, it’s a giant policy change for one or two generations. And energy alone does not dictate a city’s fate. It can have an impact, though, in what researchers like anthropologists generally attribute to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    Jared Diamond touches upon these themes in his works, but they are found everywhere. The “four horsemen” events that cause civilizations to fall:

    1. Warfare. Losing civilizations are either annihilated or become subjugated to winning authorities, either politically or economically.
    2. Pestilence or famine. A massive illness wipes out much of a population, especially when the most productive members are affected and the remainder of the population cannot return.
    3. Resource depletion. Once a source of wealth has been exhausted, so have many livelihoods. The area simply becomes abandoned. Earth is full of areas that were former mining towns, forests and agriculture beds. Cities tend to be more resilient in this regard, because of the influence of trade and the adaptability to find substitutes for imports. While cities can avoid this trap, they are blindsided by …
    4. Eclipse of political or economic influence. If cities can be resilient against the first three threats, they often succumb to the fourth because it is both slow-acting and largely invisible until it is too late. This is also usually at an end-stage of an advanced civilization.

    The circumstances come when one partner in a trade decides to channel capital into a new or emerging territory rather than back into the other partner’s established market. The most sweeping was how wealth gradually coursed westward from Asia to the Middle East to the Mediterranean to Northern Europe.

    The most relevant to the U.S., especially after 9/11, is to see what had happened to the Muslim world. While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the Muslim world that had been a beacon of trade, education and science. So what had happened?

    It was a long, drawn out process. The Middle East’s predominant trading partners were in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean nations, in turn, either went on adventures to the “New World” but also sent goods and services to inland Europe via rivers. (You’ll notice that Europe’s capitals and cities of influence are built to leverage rivers or oceans. This is no coincidence.)

    Fortunes happened to reverse. The Middle East declined because it had fewer avenues of trade than Europe, particularly because it had become so dominant. An internal tension was also brewing between the nobility and the more cosmopolitan traders. The middle class (a term that referred to people whose economic roles were not sovereigns, nobility or clergy, but not serfs or slaves — this includes scientists, traders, technocrats, artisans and intellectuals) was losing ground to the old powers, and many had emigrated for better opportunities or had been banished or killed. The source of their wealth and influence had been wiped away.

    We are very worried about Number 3 — how we will run our lives with dwindling stocks of petroleum. That’s good, because it’s very much on the minds of readers, especially of this blog. We are focused on this challenge, which is good.

    We are, however, unprepared for Number 4. Our “trading” partners, in this case the nations sopping up our increasingly worthless dollars, are cultivating partners of their own. Good for them, bad for us. Domestically, bin Laden, al-Qaida and “Islamofascism” are somewhat less of a threat than the constituents of what has become the modern right wing in the U.S. They represent the same old order that gained power by obliterating the middle class.

    The difference is one has actually infiltrated and captured the domestic power structure. Once in power, attacks begin on the many constituents of the middle class: Out-groups (diverse people in turn contribute to a diverse economy; a diverse economy is a more resilient one); foreigners (immigration is a good thing since the immigrant implicitly finds a better opportunity in a foreign land than the homeland); and “liberals” (who by profession generally fall into one or more categories of scientist, trader, technocrat, artisan and/or intellectual). The U.S. is seeing the same drama, only the cast of characters has changed.

    This is the resiliency we should be thinking about.

  • David Galvan

    California should offer to pay residents the wholesale cost for electricity they pump back into the grid via photovoltaics. As I understand it, that is why PV’s are so prevalent in Germany: the government passed a law that meant that when the residents’ PV cells provided enough energy such that they were actually contributing to the grid, the utility would actually credit their accounts at the wholesale rate. Imagine that: getting a check from the electric company some months instead of a bill. Here in CA, it’s possible to zero out your bill using photovoltaics, but the extra energy you pump into the grid will not be reimbursed by the utility. Hence, there is little incentive to put PV’s on your house. We need such an incentive to get people to take the ~$20k leap and invest in this form of green energy. Far higher percentage of Germans have PV cells on their roofs. . . and California (especially So. Cal) has far more days of sunshine per year than Germany.

  • There must be some kind of push towards reducing the *stigma* of practices such as barter.

    Quick somebody brainstorm how to get the right wing noise machine into the fold on this one – their audiences really are sheep who will follow without the need for analysis. ; ]

  • Wad

    DJ_cycle wrote:

    There must be some kind of push towards reducing the *stigma* of practices such as barter.

    There is. It’s called necessity.

    It’s happening right now in our slow-motion economic collapse. And the last thing you want is to make subsistence practices fashionable. It just drives up costs for all participants involved.


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