Interview with Professor Peter Newman, Author of “Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change”

Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University, Australia, recently wrote a book “Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change” along with co-authors, Timothy Beatley, University of Virgnia, and Heather Boyer, Island Press. In “Resilient Cities,” Newman argues that cities are unprepared for dramatic climate change or changes in energy use brought on by the end of cheap, available oil. Newman discusses how cities need to create a long-term strategy for adaptation to climate and energy use changes; the strategies both smaller urban areas and major cities have used to address these issues; and the concept of “climate positive development,” in which cities would contribute energy back to the grid, becoming net producers of energy.  

In this interview, Newman contends that cities need to create a strategy for adapting to changes in climate and energy use. “The first thing cities should do is to make their own climate change and peak oil strategy. I am a strong believer in the power of local communities to drive their own long-term future. This should include business strategies to ensure the community is realistic about next steps. Local governments should contribute medium-term infrastructure and planning, but, in the end, the big driver of change will be when local communities set out where they want to be by 2050. In my experience, few communities can resist the idea that they can be 80 percent free of all fossil fuels and have 100 percent fuel security. The steps to achieve this should be imaginable in the long-term and support urban development demonstration projects that significantly reduce carbon emissions and oil use. It is important to include both carbon reduction and the phasing out of oil in the strategy. Otherwise, you miss out on the transportation component.”

Newman argues that the cities least resilient to change are “dominated by scattered land use,” and don’t provide the crucial urban services and employment that come with economies of scale and density. Furthermore, “the crash of 2008,” initially triggered by derivatives based on sub-prime mortgages, was, in effect, caused by “toxic land uses.” Newman says: “The need for compact land development is not just for economic advantage — most sustainability issues require it. Bill Rees calls it the ‘urban sustainability multiplier.’ The crash of 2008 was precipitated by the $140 a barrel price of oil, which exposed the vulnerability of many American urban areas that rely on scattered land use. Toxic loans were based on toxic land uses.”

Newman thinks some urban communities have gotten it right and are becoming more resilient, citing Vauban in Freiburg, Germany as an example. “There are many demonstration projects emerging around the world showing how redeveloped urban areas can be more resilient. We are keen on Vauban in Germany and BedZED in London. All urban development should now be transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented, and green-oriented redevelopment, and aim for achieving the goal of becoming carbon-neutral, as well as oil-free. Vauban is an excellent example of how such eco-redevelopment can significantly reduce carbon emissions. With its car-free status, Vauban shows how a kind of “green freedom” has emerged, with children obviously much more free in their movements. Vauban not only demonstrates how preferable it is to have cars subordinated in a development, but that green development can simply be better development.”

Major cities can also adapt by supporting localized economic, food production, and social activities. “Many big cities like Tokyo, London, and New York already show that economic opportunity does not necessarily work against localized community redevelopment, but can even facilitate this trend. However, it is very hard to do this in scattered urban areas. Local food and slow food are growing movements that are rediscovering the benefits and qualities of localized activity within big cities. Big cities are the driving force in a globalized economy.”

When asked about the concept of climate positive development, a strategy for transforming cities into net producers of energy, instead of merely consumers, Newman is optimistic. “I am working on a number of projects moving in this direction. These projects are focused on becoming carbon-neutral or even carbon-positive, and demonstrate that cities can help regenerate the planet. There is a global process focused on auditing procedures for carbon in alternative development schemes. There is the beginning of a dialogue on how these can become part of a carbon trading scheme. Urban development will always have many features and criteria that will drive its design, but the decarbonizing of design will be increasingly on this agenda.”

Read the full interview

Image credit: Peter Newman / Curtin University

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