Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change

Reviewed by: Don Alexander
Resilient Cities book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Resilient Cities \ Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer

Yogi Berra’s famous line, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” certainly rings true for decision makers and citizens concerned with the well-being of urban areas.

Resilient Cities, written by sustainability researchers Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer, describes a future in which peak oil and climate change will mean the end of many familiar signs of affluence. We will have to give up urban sprawl, transportation systems organized around personal motor vehicles, our dependence on global trade (especially in food) and, more generally, our ability to rely on dependable weather and natural processes.

The book begins by sketching out four possible scenarios: the collapse of urban systems, re-ruralization, the divided city, and the authors’ favoured option: the resilient city.

In the collapse scenario, societies would exceed their resource limits and then suffer a decline in organized systems of production and governance, as well as a corresponding catastrophic shrinkage in population. Re-ruralization envisions city dwellers becoming more self-provisioning as supply regions contract, with vast swaths of suburbia being converted to food production. The problem with this scenario, the authors point out, is that it ignores the millions of inner city dwellers who will have to move, since they will have little access to food-growing land and few means of making a living. In the divided cities scenario (and, by extension, divided countries), the rich and powerful kick the less fortunate out of the life raft, sealing themselves into fortress communities with whatever resources they can sequester.

A resilient city, on the other hand, would be more adaptable to change, and more in balance with its bio-regions and the biosphere as a whole. The authors illustrate their point by comparing Atlanta and Barcelona. Per capita, Atlantans consume almost 3000 liters of gasoline a year, whereas the residents of Barcelona use less than 240. Guess which city will best be able to cope with inevitable oil shortages?

After articulating the threats associated with peak oil and climate change, the authors describe a vision for revitalized cities built around renewable energy and carbon neutrality. They also tout distributed (or decentralized) infrastructure, sustainable transport systems, closed-loop systems for raw materials and wastes, harnessed photosynthesis for food and fiber, and a strong sense of place.

Concluding with “ten strategic steps towards a resilient city,” which offer tips ranging from how to set a visionary plan right up to building climate-friendly food and shelter systems, the book is a great expression of the many ideas that are taking shape more broadly. These include the emerging global “transition town” movement, as well as the fact that Metro Vancouver used the concept of distributed infrastructure as part of its winning entry in the 2003 international competition for a 100-year sustainability plan.

In tandem with a companion volume, Cities As Sustainable Ecosystems, written by Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings, Resilient Cities is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the enormous and unprecedented challenges facing cities­.

Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer, Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2009, 166 pages

This review originally appeared in Out of the Box, Issue 36.4. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

 

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