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Resilient Cities – Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change 2009/12/09

Posted by sarahgitt in Environmental Planning.

Resilient Cities – Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change

By Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer

Review by Sarah Gitt

Resilient Cities is a recently published book by Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia; Timothy Beatley, a Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia; and Heather Boyer, senior editor at Island Press and the 2005 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.   In a well-organized format and straightforward manner, the authors explain the impending crises that cities all over the world will soon be facing – peak oil and climate change – and how urban planners can adapt the built environment to overcome these challenges and create thriving sustainable cities.

While it is clear that all of humanity, not just the urban population, will be forced to adapt to a rapidly changing planet and dwindling resources, Newman and his co-authors chose to focus on the urban environment because “cities now consume 75 percent of the world’s energy and emit 80 percent of the world’s green house gases. . . .  For the first time, half of humanity lives in cities, and it is estimated that by 2030 the number of city dwellers will reach five billion, or 60 percent, of the world’s population” (4).

The book is split into four main sections, which address the following questions:

  1. What are peak oil and climate change?  Why should we city planners care about these issues?
  2. What will happen to cities in the future?
  3. What do the built environment and transportation systems of resilient cities look like?
  4. What kinds of strategic steps do we need to take to create resilient cities?

Marion King Hubbert suggested the idea of peak oil, which refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any given area.  Although half of the oil supply remains at the peak, the remaining oil is much more difficult, costly, and energy consuming to extract.  Conventional forms of energy will become more and more expensive as resources become more and more scarce and the current state of alternative energy technology will not be able to fill the gap between energy supply and demand.  Cities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dwindling energy resources due to their extreme dependence on fossil fuels.   “The more a city can minimize its dependence on resources such as fossil fuels in a period when there are global constraints on supply and global demand is increasing, the more resilient it will be.  Atlanta needs 782 gallons of gasoline per person each year for its urban system to work, but in Barcelona, it is just 64 gallons” (7).  All cities, the authors argue, must strive to attain the efficient energy use that Barcelona has been able to maintain.

As city planners, we must also be cognizant of climate change; building sustainable and eco-friendly cities is not only a key component of breaking our addiction to oil, but is also necessary to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and our impact on global climate change.

The authors present four future scenarios for how cities will respond to the “double-whammy” of the coming climate and energy crises.  The first is Collapse:  the end of civilization as we know it, as described by Jared Diamond in his often-cited and well-researched book, Collapse.  The second scenario is the Ruralized City, in which cities will return to a more sustainable, agriculture-based semi-rural lifestyle with self-sufficient economies.  The Divided City is the third scenario presented by the authors and describes a polarized city that develops as the wealthy form exclusive and sustainable eco-enclaves, not unlike the small New Urbanist communities currently being built now in large cities, such as Glenwood Park in Atlanta.  The poor are left with cheap housing on the fringe of the city, with few municipal services and very high crime rates.

Finally, the authors describe the fourth scenario – the Resilient City – in which the green and sustainable technologies in the eco-enclaves of the wealthy in the Divided City scenario are provided for all.  Developing Resilient Cities will require a paradigm shift dependent on the innovations of new technology and visionary leadership, particularly in the field of city planning.  Resilient Cities lists seven elements that are necessary for the built environment of a resilient city:  renewable energy, carbon neutral transportation and buildings, decentralized infrastructure systems, photosynthetic infrastructure, eco-efficiency, place-based economic development, and sustainable transportation.

While these key elements are described as the authors’ “vision for Resilient Cities,” transport is what they call their “hope for Resilient Cities.”  A new vision of how cities can more efficiently move people and products is the most important aspect of the Resilient City, whose transportation network requires the following elements:  a fast transit system with high service availability and connectivity; walkable areas and cycling facilities; the phasing-out of freeways and phasing-in of congestion taxes; improvement of vehicle engines; and visionary regional and local governance.

While the authors focus on transportation and sustainability, I find this book to be relevant to all fields of city planning, as we will all be affected by the need for cities to adapt to the challenges that the coming climate and energy crises will surely bring.  The goals outlined by Resilient Cities will likely form the backbone of the most important issues in urban planning in the coming decades; achieving what the authors deem a necessary shift to new and innovative ways of planning the built environment will require the skills of planners from all specializations.

Beatley, T., Boyer, H., & Newman, P. (2009). Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Washington, DC: Island Press.



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