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.

"Resilient 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.

  • Placemaking is just as important, if not more so than solar energy use or any other gizmo green technology. A place has to be worth loving to become sustainable. Thus, while the above image may not be representative of Freiburg’s extant conditions, it surely depicts a suburban garden apartment configuration– a hangover from our poor modernist planning ideals. When will we match the timeless qualities of urbanism with the use of the right technology?

  • Indeed. There is a big promotion of urban density and in-fill, but it is predicated on the ability to draw from the surrounding countryside, particularly one of the most basic needs – food. Keeping our physical footprint low is important, and our cities must become much more productive (as well as our rural areas much better integrated). Luckily, the technology we already have — rooftop gardens, living walls, seed saving and more (more at http://www.indigenous-permaculture.com on this). And luckily, we’re seeing a lot more interest, attention and resources placed in this area, with much, much more work and commitment required.

  • Dave Baldwin

    An increase in “inter-connected modes of transportation” is needed to make cities more efficient in a time of climate change ? Sorry could not disagree more. I have worked for 15 years as a Transport Consultant on public transport matters, and one thing I can state with reasonably certainty – inter-connected modes of transportations means higher complexity, meaning greater chance of a system breakdown during extremes. I always cringe when people start talking about the ‘Smart’ city of the future – in my view it would be smarter not to be ‘smart’. More neo-liberal nonsense, trying to defy the laws of entropy.

  • If you’re against “inter-connected modes of transportation”, what do you propose instead? Just curious.

  • Don Mac

    “Resilient Cities” not a chance! Just look at the slums of the third world.

    All human endeavor is a giant monopoly game. Cities are just part of the game. Nothing happens unless property owners and the wealthy benefit.

    It is not clear how to get from where we are to where we want to be, but the idea that it begins with the design of cities is naive.

  • I agree with the sentiments of the blog post and disagree with the comments. We are entering a new economy, a post-carbon economy. Some cities will be more able to adapt to these changes while others will not. New York City is in a particularly good place to thrive in a post-carbon economy. The city has the highest share of transit users, an efficient street grid system, and a dense housing stock. The city is well situated to become a manufacturing and distribution center once again as the price of transporting goods over long distances increases.

  • Some good comments here that I’d like to comment on, myself:

    @ Mike Lydon: I’m glad you brought up placemaking, and I would add to that, “context.” Almost every article I’ve read about Freiburg’s solar and car-free (e.g., the Vauban, profiled recently in the NYT) developments recently ignores that these places work because they are connected to the already-existing city of Freiburg and its top-notch transit, bicycling, and walking infrastructure; its vibrant and engaging culture; and its bustling local economy. One of the important contributions of the ‘Resilient Cities’ book is its recognition that you can’t just slap in a “transit-oriented development,” “Smart Growth” strategies, a few green buildings, or whatever, and meet the goal of resilience.

    @ Dave Baldwin: Not sure if you knew this already, but your observation that higher complexity increases the possibility of breakdown is actually a fundamental quality identified in “resilience thinking” (i.e., per the Panarchy / complex adaptive system model as promoted by the Resilience Alliance, http://www.resalliance.org). Being somewhat familiar with Newman and Beatley’s work, I don’t believe they necessarily took their definition of “resilience” from RA’s book, but I’d bet that when they talk about “interconnected modes of transportation” they’re talking about making sure your various modes just feed in to each other (e.g., you can walk to your streetcar stop, which takes you directly to your regional hub train station) — not that they’re wholly dependent on each other.

    @DMIJohn: New York City has good scores on some indicators (cf. Karlenzig’s “How Green is Your City?” and the recent NRDC study @ http://smartercities.nrdc.org/rankings/large) — but I would argue that it is woefully UNprepared for the shorter-term vulnerabilities being created by peak oil and climate change because it is still incredibly dependent on some incredibly long and thick supply chains for basics like food and fuel, and a badly-aging infrastructure for basics like water and transport. The blackout of 2003 gave a hint of what happens when just one of these lifelines goes down even temporarily; imagine what would happen if oil spiked to $200 for a few months during a particularly nasty heatwave, or if a combination of storm surges and power outages knocked out the pumps that keep the subway system from filling up with water?

    I discuss the conceptual problem of such energy and climate vulnerabilities in my book “Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty” (www.postcarboncities.net)

    Daniel Lerch
    Post Carbon Institute

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