How to Design Resilient Cities

Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change,” published earlier this year, argues that cities need to plan their future development considering their “resiliency” to changes in climate and the availability of fossil fuels. Authors Peter Newman (Curtin University, Australia), Timothy Beatley (University of Virginia), and Heather Boyer (Harvard University) predict that in the next couple years, energy demand will outmatch oil supplies worldwide, resulting in a situation exceeding the challenges of the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970’s. The authors argue that expanded use of cars, ever-growing urban sprawl, and poorly managed urban development could lead to a twin energy and climate crisis for cities. “A danger that few think about with such immediacy is the threat of the collapse of metropolitan regions in the face of resource depletion — namely, the reduction in the availability of oil and the necessary reduction in all fossil fuel use to reduce human impact on climate change.”

Newman and his co-authors focus on cities because “cities now consume 75 percent of the world’s energy and emit 80 percent of the world’s green house gases. Cities are presently growing globally at 2 percent per year, while rural areas have leveled out and in many cases are declining. 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.”

The authors outline some less-than-ideal future scenarios if nothing is done to help cities adapt: the total collapse of cities (economic, social, and cultural meltdown, similar to the ideas presented in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”); a return to ruralized cities (characterized by semi-urban lifestyles and localized economies); and divided cities (separated by differences in economic status, with less affluent groups receiving little to none of the remaining energy resources). None of these scenarios offer long-term, equitable solutions for larger metropolitan areas.

“Resilient Cities” also 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 can best survive a climate and energy crisis are those engage in long-term planning and design for resiliency; 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. “This means the city can become more polycentric. The transport systems for fast cross-city movement and a series of small-scale electric and hybrid vehicles for small local trips as well as walking and cycling, which have survived all the city form changes. 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, there are seven key elements to a resilient city:

Renewable Energy City: Urban areas will be powered by renewable energy technologies from the region to the building level.” As an example, the authors point to the German city of Freiburg, also known as the “ecological capital of Europe,” as a renewable city. Freiburg has incorporated renewable energy into many sections of the city (e.g. SolarRegion Freeburg). The authors also cite the use of LEED, home solar panels, and innovative community financing schemes for solar and wind power.

“Carbon Neutral City: Every home, neighborhood, and business will be carbon neutral.” The authors note the range of green rating systems (LEED, BREAM, Green Globes, and the New South Wales BASIX approval system). (Also, see earlier post on Clinton’s climate positive development cities)

“Distributed City:
Cities will shift from large centralized power, water, and waste systems to small-scale and neighborhood-based systems” (see earlier post on the Sustainable Sites Initiative and wetland system at Sidwell Friends School).

“Photosynthetic City:
The potential to harness renewable energy and provide food and fiber locally will become part of urban green infrastructure.” The authors cite the city of Vaxja in Sweden, which has developed a locally-based renewable energy strategy that takes “full advantage of its working landscapes, in its case the abundant forests that exist within close proximity to the city.”

“Eco-Efficient City:
Cities and regions will move from linear to circular or closed-loop systems, where substantial amounts of their energy and materials needs are provided from waste streams.” Ideas noted here include William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle (C2C), and viewing cities as a “complex set of metabolic flows.”

“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 sparingly by offering walkable, transit-oriented options supplemented by electric vehicles.” As an example, Vauban, Germany (part of Freiburg) has re-designed its transport networks so many of its streets are now cut-off to cars. A majority of people don’t even own a car, and use bikes and public transportation to get around (see earlier post on Vauban, Germany). Also, NYC and Chicago were lauded for their green plans.

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 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.

Read the book

Image credit: Solar Settlement, Freiburg, Germany. Young Germany

5 thoughts on “How to Design Resilient Cities

  1. ASTM D6866 07/20/2009 / 10:36 pm

    Great summary. A photosynthetic city and sustainable transport city are ideal but not applicable to all, obviously. A carbon-neutral city would be close to impossible. Eco-efficient and renewable energy cities should be the future.

  2. Rebekah Heyes 07/29/2009 / 1:39 am

    Nice post. Looks like wind power is really starting to get some serious consideration in Australia now.

  3. Mark L. Johnson 08/26/2009 / 11:01 am

    As a landscape architect / physical planner, I am very supportive of creating great places. But simply providing physical structures that are appealing and secure seems to be short sighted, if we are looking toward sustainability. What is a city? Does it have a population of 50 thousand or 5 million? What type and how large are the green spaces? Are they appropriate for agriculture and forestry? Is there significant biodiversity that can ward off disease and plague?

    • Where Are the People? 11/19/2009 / 2:07 am

      So you’ve got the structures but the people have starved or frozen to death because you haven’t addressed food and housing. Best focus on the basics of life first rather than systems because failure to address them means that you have no need for systems of any sort. Focusing on the basics of life will drive the systems you need.

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