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

Newman_interview pageIn your recent book, “Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change,” co-authored with Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer, you argue that cities are unprepared for dramatic climate change or changes in the availability of fossil fuels. What do cities need to do become more flexible and adaptable to these twin 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.

Please define a resilient city. What do they look like? How are they powered? How do their transportation networks work? What is their relationship to ecosystems? 

A resilient city is sustainable in its economy, environment, and community, but it has a deeper quality which enables it to quickly adapt to challenges and rebuild itself for any challenge it faces. This is a spiritual quality, which we can see in individuals, families, communities, and businesses, when they are able to face their problems honestly and reinvent themselves rather than live in denial. The reality of the peak oil and climate change crises is that most cities are in denial and not prepared for the big changes that are required.

The cities that are least resilient are dominated by scattered land use without the urban services and employment that come with the economies of scale and density. 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.

Resilient cities can optimize the urban sustainability multiplier by being more urban not less urban, and being more green at the same time. Resilient cities will use less land, water, energy, materials and produce far less waste; develop new ways of becoming ecologically regenerative through water-sensitive design, local food systems, and biophilic landscape; have transit systems along all major corridors (linking major centers) that are quicker and more convenient than using a car (while local transport will be made far more attractive through biking and walking); have cars, but these will be electric plug-ins that are a necessary part of how the city uses renewable power (their battery storage will be part of a renewable energy-powered smart grid); feature distributed infrastructure; and have a far greater "sense of place," which is based around the growth of social capital and new sustainability technologies and lifestyles.

What are the best ways to retrofit existing “automobile-dependent” cities with more sustainable transportation networks, turning them into the walking and biking cities you discuss in “Resilient Cities?”

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.

You also argue for a return to localism in some respects, including local food production to cut down on C02 emissions related to food transportation. How do you sell localism when so much of world is moving to big cities? How can local areas compete with the cultural offerings or economic opportunities only big cities like NYC or London can offer?

Cities do indeed provide economic opportunities and that is the driving force behind urbanization. Big cities provide more of these opportunities. This should not be seen as competing with the idea of localism as most urban life is lived out in local communities. Resilient cities in the future will retain their ability to provide economic opportunities – they will not become, like some permaculturalists suggest, just sites for food production and barter like in medieval villages. New sustainability technologies for energy and water management are much more localized. Also, sustainable transport modes means much more localized activity, and the rebuilding of community demands localized governance.

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.

Landscape architects have been focused on expanding green infrastructure in urban areas. You seem to argue that green infrastructure should also be employed for food and materials production. How can you achieve a balance between using green infrastructure as recreation (networks of parks), carbon sinks, and sources of biodiversity, while also having them serve a production function? 

Green infrastructure has moved from being "the bits left over in urban design" to being "sensitive to the underlying ecology," and a concept that needs to be respected. Now we need green infrastructure to go to a third level -- to help facilitate the Resilient City. This will require green infrastructure to have an integrated function in recreational activity, regenerative activity (carbon sinks and biodiversity), and regional agricultural activity.

The city will develop many urban niches in food production as local foods are more valued, but these local foods will be labor-intensive agricultural products like vegetables, fruits, and herbs/spices. Each city will become more related to its bioregion and focused on how to bring food to the city using minimum food miles. Designers will need to add this into their plans for buildings (green walls and green roofs) as well as neighborhood redevelopments, where intensive urban agriculture can be part of all projects. Urban governance will need to facilitate the growth of urban food markets and community-supported agriculture.

Your book often cites Freiburg, Germany, as a case study for a renewable, sustainable city. What have they gotten right and wrong? How transferable is this model?

Freiburg is a model because they were prepared to experiment with reducing carbon, enabling car-free developments, and ensuring that sustainable transport and sustainable energy production received priority in their infrastructure. The governance and values of the city enabled the city to take risks which many other cities are not prepared to take. But not all cities are small university towns.

The Vauban development in Freiburg is also an interesting model because it was a public community partnership (PCP) not a private public partnership (PPP). The town used a PCP model, and was prepared to enable an non-governmental organization (NGO) to become the driving force in rebuilding the old military base, not a PPP, which is what most urban developments are today. Certainly, private sector innovations are needed along with government guidance, but community ideals and values strongly built into a redevelopment project are still rare.

Through his foundation, Bill Clinton recently launched a “Climate Positive Development” cities program, which will strive to reduce the amount of C02 emissions from cities to “below zero.” Professor David Godschalk also recently called for a “visionary positive development strategy” in which cities would contribute energy back to the grid. Instead of sustainably consuming energy, cities must become net producers of energy. How feasible are these plans? What needs to happen for these concepts to become reality? 

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.


Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University, Australia, wrote his latest book, "Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change," with Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, University of Virginia, and Heather Boyer, Island Press. Newman was recently the Sydney City Government's Commissioner for Sustainability. Newman's 1999 book, "Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence," was launched at the U.S. White House.


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Karen T. Grajales
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