Resilient cities: what will it take?- Peter Newman
Resilient cities: what will it take?
By Peter Newman[i]
Resilience in our personal lives is about lasting, adapting, making it through crises, it is about inner strength and a strong physical constitution. Resilience is now being applied to cities, especially as we face such an uncertain future.
For decades the US has wanted to become resilient to energy, especially oil, in its cities. But things have only got worse. Now 87% of its oil is depleted and imports grow daily, creating vulnerability to sudden price changes as the world faces depleting oil reserves.
The sub-prime mortgage crash was linked to this vulnerability as the worst hit areas were in highly car dependent parts of cities where a tripling in fuel prices tipped so many households over in their repayments. Toxic loans were based in toxic land use and transportation policy.
Not only is energy security an issue for US cities but they must also face a global future where 50% to 80% of all fossil fuels need to be replaced by renewable power within a generation. What will it take to make this happen?
Resilience to energy in US cities will only occur when two key policy approaches are implemented:
· Stop creating more of the problem by funding freeways and scattered urban development that can only survive with cars and cheap oil.
· Start creating electric renewable cities with more localized infrastructure and economies.
The stimulus package can help and hinder this transition.
It will help if it is designed to fund the new green economy as its prime focus. Each major financial crash – in the 1840s, 1890s and 1930s – has seen the world’s industrial cities adapt not just to a new kind of economy but also a new urban form and transportation system.
The old economy, which is now crumbling, was based around cheap oil, freeways and a highly dispersed urban form. If the stimulus tries to continue this it will only make the problems we have in car dependent cities much worse.
The new green economy offers us the chance to build our cities around electric renewably-powered transport as well as supporting land use which will be more focussed in centers.
There will be both electric transit and electric vehicles that will be needed for this new Resilient City.
Electric transit based around high capacity rail that is faster than traffic down each urban corridor offers the chance to live with much less car use, perhaps as much as 50% less if we build attractive transit oriented developments around stations. Projects across the US such as the Balston Corridor and the rebuilding of Tysons Corner are rapidly demonstrating this urban development opportunity.
Electric vehicles based around the Lithium Ion battery are offering our cities the chance to go 100% renewable. Up until now the amount of renewable energy able to be fed into the grid was limited to around 15% due to the variability in its supply. Now with electric plug-in vehicles people can fill up at home overnight when the grid is shedding power; then during the day, when vehicles are not in use, they can be plugged in to provide the storage facility for the system. Thus plug-in cars can give back power to the grid when it is needed at peak times. Electric utilities will pay us for this power.
The new electric city can feed in all its various renewable power sources and provide a resilient and sustainable energy system for buildings, industry and most importantly - transportation. Demonstrations of this new ‘renewable transport’ technology are appearing in Israel, Denmark, Hawaii and three Australian cities.
Electric transit and plug-in electric vehicles will only work with the new smart grids that enable renewables to be fed in and the system to respond to two way flows of power. Boulder is demonstrating a smart grid.
The new investment can be paid for by recycling the funds we would have put into big new roads and urban fringe development. We should not continue the old city building processes of freeways that have scattered our cities into highly inefficient forms. Refocussing around centers will drive the new economy not just in transportation and energy but also in water and waste which will be managed more and more in localized centers.
In our new book we set out these ideas for building resilience and outline a number of examples where they can begin to be seen. Two simple case studies can illustrate that the newly emerging cities of the future will be better places to live as well as being more resilient.
Seoul in Korea is one of the few cities to take down an urban freeway. The elevated road had been built over the top of the main river in Seoul and a social movement to take it down led to an election where the mayor who won promised to deliver its removal. Now we can see a 4 mile long central park with a rehabilitated river which has become a feature of life in the city. Most of the traffic on the freeway was found to disappear.
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany is a 5000 household development which is 100% renewably powered and where car use is heavily restricted. The light rail and bike system is excellent and most importantly the urban development has much more green spaces where children play freely as there is no fear of traffic.
Resilience in our cities can be achieved but will require imagination and commitment to the reduction in car dependence as well as the provision of new electric transit and plug-in electric vehicles. If we prop up the road building industry we will undermine the possibilities for creating the Resilient City.
[i] Peter Newman is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. He was a Fulbright Scholar at University of Virginia where he wrote the new book ‘Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change’ with Tim Beatley and Heather Boyer (Island Press, 2009). He is a Board Member of Infrastructure Australia which is distributing $20 billion for the renewal of Australian infrastructure on a sustainability basis.