Book Review: Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change

by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer Reviewed by Trey Akers

Academic colleagues Peter Newman (Curtin University, Australia) and Timothy Beatley (University of Virginia) team with Island Press Senior Editor Heather Boyer to share personal experiences of sustainable urban policy as a response to risks posed by peak oil and climate change. For the first two authors, this work emerges out of crucial events surrounding the 1970s oil crisis, circumstances that shocked each as social disarray and a loss of individual freedom that transformed economic, political, and social relationships across society. Along with Boyer, a 2005 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, the authors draw upon direct encounters with innovations in city design. More than sustainable design solutions, however, a desire to create places—settlements that strengthen human connectedness and bonds to the natural landscape—drives the authors’ impetus to restructure cities. They believe transformative progress will be locally- and regionally-based, but will entail global implications regarding energy use, ecosystem management, and social prosperity. As such, the authors eschew any sweeping policy recommendations in favor of identifying and promoting best practices for incorporation in community and metropolitan-wide planning.

“These are not simple changes, however, and there is little question that the transition will be difficult. This transition has been referred to as the Sixth Wave of industrialism because it is a complete reorientation of industrial society to a different set of technologies and a rethinking of how we organize cities” (52).

The 1956 National Interstate & Defense Highways Act redefined the modern industrial era, providing a federal framework that responded to the threats of the day (Cold War security concerns), expanded the scope of new technological advancements (the internal combustion engine), and indelibly altered settlement patterns for the next 60 years (bolstered suburbs at city center expense). Most strikingly, the legislation delivered a coherent, defining public policy. Yet today, we face risks born of this system and unprecedented challenges related to energy and climate. We need tools to address these issues as well as a means to enact the desired changes. Resilient Cities offers a compelling review of practices both current and future that will enable the fundamental reordering of urban areas in response to increasing uncertainty surrounding climate patterns and energy production. By understanding the implications of our actions, the authors believe we can devise and implement alternative economic, transport, and land use patterns that will establish vibrant, enduring cities in spite of energy constraints. Resiliency, the term employed by the authors to describe the necessary sociopolitical “resolve” and adaptable infrastructure of new cities, provides the basis for this re-constitution. While strong on vision, the work proves short on an explicit policy framework to guide implementation. Nevertheless, the book catalogues innovative practices from around the world, often reading like an encyclopedic narrative.

Before surveying these practices, the authors provide an overview of the need for dynamic, long-term urban policies through a look at the current and projected state of metropolitan affairs. They examine resource consumption habits, land use patterns, and forecasted energy trends while detailing the unsustainable nature of conventional energy development and use. Comparisons such as the annual per capita gasoline needs in Atlanta (782 gallons) versus Barcelona (64 gallons) highlight the importance of land use and transportation policies in driving energy demand [7]. Similarly, detailed analysis of energy production, anticipated declines, and unbridgeable supply gaps all lend credibility to the need for revamped policies, but passing shots at political actors minimally support their argument [36, 111]. Overall, the evidence is clear:  conventional energy will become more expensive and difficult to access, and even full-scale incorporation of alternative fuels will not compensate for rising demand.

As a response, the authors offer four potential scenarios of the future decline or renewal of urban areas:  Collapsed, Ruralized, Divided, or Resilient Cities. Collective fear and lack of resources characterize both Collapsed and Divided City scenarios, resulting in an ungovernable state or restricting economic prosperity to a few. The Ruralized City, based on individual farmsteads akin to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision for the colonies, proves equally unsustainable, the authors conclude. Importantly, though, this model emphasizes that the metropolitan connection to adjacent agricultural lands and the selective cultivation of peri-urban areas (abandoned and peripheral city spaces) are critical components of the Resilient City. But the authors contend that agriculture is not the chief function of the city [44] and instead envision Resilient Cities of technological advances, business innovations, distributed energy systems, and sustainable transport that will foster prosperity for all.

Against this backdrop, the authors propose seven paradigm-shifting principles to remake cities (56). The measures range from renewable energy and photosynthetic capabilities to sustainable transport, carbon neutrality, and place-based community design. Ambitious and broad, the authors support each proposal with specific international practices already underway. These citations survey a range of policy initiatives, enlightening readers as well as provoking ideas related to transferability and local application. In different spots, the authors establish connections to policy, identifying possible indicators of resilient city progress [98, 118]. Examples include an urban Chicago farmers’ co-op; community-based social marketing programs in Perth, Australia; and realigning subsidies to compare more equitably renewable energy sources with conventional “top-up” supplies [127]. The distance of a development from the city center; the density; the fuel consumed; the quality of transit service; and the miles of roadway converted from auto-use to pedestrian/green spaces represent worthwhile urban sustainability indexes but not direct policy practices. Most examples remain in the realm of neat ideas, meant to inspire action but steer clear of specific recommendations. What the discussion lacks is a path to implementing such practices in each community.

However, such ambiguity may strengthen the book’s scope. As the authors assert, “the really important initiatives have to begin at the city level because there is great variation in how cities cope within any nation” [5]. The authors discuss scores of novel local initiatives:  distributed-renewable energy systems, horticultural districts, and place-based development principles (see “5 percent social infrastructure policy,” [99. There are many exciting tools being tested, refined, and implemented at various scales, and this book showcases a number of them. In this regard, its ideas serve as a launch pad, a point from which to depart and seek greater information.

The book concludes with Ten Strategic Steps for implementation, iterative learning, and the targeting of public assets as archetypes to drive sustainable growth. For example, cities could use public parking decks with vegetative roofs and ground-level retail shops to reduce the number of surface-lot parking spaces needed at transit stops (targeting public assets). This practice frees more land for higher-intensity development; improves water quality and concurrently lessens energy demand through green roof design; reduces private sector parking costs, creating an incentive that supports transit-oriented development; and encourages walking by limiting parking supply and concentrating uses. Designing a strategy to assess parking capacity, prioritizing sites, and establishing a funding stream for infrastructure financing represent implementation steps, while constructing a metric to gauge the strategy’s effect on walkability (and revising the approach based on the results) demonstrates iterative policy learning. As this case illustrates, the Sixth Wave comprises many tools and practices ready to meet the most pressing challenges. In fact, the Sixth Wave might most appropriately be described as the reconstitution of new technological capacities towards sustainable community aims. Widespread construction of green roofs, enhanced multi-modal transit opportunities, and distributed energy systems will no doubt change the shape of the metropolitan landscape. But unlike the federally-mandated 1956 Highways Act, the difference will be the scale of implementation—with the greatest innovations occurring at the local level. And while this book does not convey a comprehensive framework for policy formation and execution, it provides a compendium of useful elements to inform public policy and assist readers, practitioners, and leaders in crafting a robust, adaptive plan to guide their city toward prosperity in a new energy future.

Trey Akers holds a Master of City and Regional Planning degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in 2006. Akers currently works as a transit-oriented development planner with the Triangle J Council of Governments in Research Triangle Park. Akers previously served as an urban designer implementing sustainable design principles in the Davidson, NC, office of the The Lawrence Group.


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