Gas prices are at an average of $1.96 per gallon, far below the $4-plus they hit last year. The price of oil amid a global recession that has sharply curtailed demand declines to $35 per barrel on Feb. 20. People are fearful as many lose jobs and others go through foreclosures. In such an environment, many don’t have “peak oil” or climate change foremost on their minds. But the concerns about the world having a finite reserve of oil and worries about climate change haven’t gone away.
Peter Newman is one of those thinking and speaking about these topics constantly. In a newly released book, Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, the author and professor from Australia and co-authors Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer warn that cities must adapt in the face of these two major challenges or they will collapse. The book discusses four possible outcomes for cities: “collapse,” “ruralized,” “divided,” and “resilient.”
Rather than dwelling on doomsday predictions, the authors choose hope, saying that we as humans can, in Newman’s words, “begin to change our cities towards resilience.” Such cities will innovate so that they become based on renewable energy, not oil; are eco-efficient and carbon-neutral; will produce energy and grow food locally; and will take other measures to reduce consumption and become sustainable. They will be transit-based (especially rail), not car-dependent, and far more in tune with nature, and they’ll create much more viable and pleasant walking and cycling spaces.
Does this sound pie-in-the-sky? No. As the authors show in their book and others are documenting each day with practical examples, many cities are overhauling their urban planning for these 21st century realities and pursuing actions to become resilient and sustainable. Here are 10 examples, cited by the authors of Resilient Cities and from other places:
- Some cities in Australia have set up “walking school buses,” in which two volunteer guides act as “drivers” and pick up children from their doorsteps and walk them, along a set route, to school. The programs lessen vehicle congestion around schools, encourage children to get exercise, and help increase kids’ familiarity with their communities.
- In Vancouver, the city mandates that 5 percent of the value of a new development goes into funding “social infrastructure,” the space in between buildings. The local community decides what to do with the funds, which can be used for landscaping, art, bicycle paths, better or additional pedestrian areas, community meeting spaces, schools, etc.
- The city of Seoul in South Korea tore down an elevated highway that had covered what was considered a sacred small river, restoring the river and creating public pathways on both sides of it. The city now offers walking tours, led by a cultural heritage guide, of a natural place that has been restored after decades of congestion and pollution.
- Starting with the experiment of making a main artery “car-free” in 1962, the Danish capital of Copenhagen has pursued a vigorous initiative to promote pedestrian access and de-emphasize vehicles. Today, the city has more than 1 million square feet of pedestrian network, and Copenhagen is far more pedestrian-oriented.
- Bicycling is another main thrust of Copenhagen’s initiatives. The city instituted wide bike lanes separated from vehicle traffic. Recent figures show that 36 percent of all commuting to and from work in Copenhagen is done by bike. Other European cities are using these pathways, New York City recently established its first one on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, and Melbourne, Australia, plans to introduce the “Copenhagen-style” lanes.
- Cities and towns have established toy libraries, where families can check out toys. Once children become bored with them or want different toys, the families then return them to the library.
- As part of its multi-pronged Sustainability City initiative, the city of Santa Monica, Calif., aims to meet its current environmental, economic, and social needs without compromising the needs of future generations. Some of its 2008 successes: Santa Monica’s food composting program kept more than 1 million pounds of food waste from local restaurants out of landfills. Its pilot transportation collaboration between the city’s Big Blue Bus transit system, run almost entirely on alternative fuels, and Santa Monica College reduced 1.6 million car trips in the first year.
- In the city of South Fremantle in Western Australia, a group of parents, citizens, local government leaders, and a community bank have committed to establishing South Fremantle High School as a carbon-neutral model. This is just part of the City of Fremantle’s long-term commitment to become a sustainable community.
- Chicago is a pioneering city in adopting “green roofs” – a roof with plants and complementary materials – to conserve energy and cut the costs of air conditioning and cooling. Green roofs are one way of combating the “urban heat island” effect, which occurs due to the use of concrete and asphalt in an urban area. By 2008, Chicago had more than 450 green roofs in existence or under development.
- Perth in Western Australia is shaping its destiny despite rapid regional growth and the threats of urban sprawl with, among other initiatives, major extensions to its rail system that are making the city less car-dependent. Rail ridership grew more than fivefold, from 8 million riders per year in the 1990s to 47 million in 2005. Another extension is expected to double the ridership again. Perth gives free bus and train trips around the center of the city.
It’s precisely at this time of global recession that we need to understand not only its roots but the seeds of rebirth and transformation occurring during a time of great dislocation and crisis. As Peter Newman has recently written, “The 2008 crash signals that this era is over and the birth pangs of the new Resilient City are emerging in our cities – if we let it.”