Urban Resilience: climate change, peaking resources, economic crash. Next?

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How do we put the pieces together to make our cities and metro areas stronger than they were before climate change, energy volatility and the Great Recession?

(See "*answer" at end of this post...)

That's what I'll be discussing tomorrow (Tuesday) night on a panel, "Urban Resilience in Post-Carbon World," in Vancouver with Bill Rees, of Ecological Footprint fame, and Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.

The panel, sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute, will be open to the public and is part of a larger event on urban resilience bringing together local government leaders from Canada and the United States, as well as academics and practitioners in urban sustainability--er, resiliency--management.

Vancouver has been viewed for a decade as a success story in sustainable planning and programs. From the city's emphasis on increased downtown density, bikability and green buildings, including its sponsorship of a "21 places for the 21st century" contest, to a city farmer program for exchanging surplus fruit, Vancouver is on the vanguard of urban resiliency innovation. It also is one of Canada's most diverse cities, home to significant numbers of Asians from many countries, including India, as well as indigenous North Americans.

The rich offerings of the Resilient Cities event demonstrates that Vancouver is thinking ahead once more. Besides its Mayor Gregor Robertson, minions of regional and local government, non-governmental and business leaders will be putting on events, including:

  • The Vancouver Design Nerds and Open Space Network will be facilitating an urban agriculture ideas jam while another group of food system experts and producers will examine "Planning Metro Vancouver as if Food Matters."
  • A local university campus (BCIT Burnaby Campus) will be having a design charette, led by Ecocities founder Richard Register, to reduce its ecological footprint by a factor of four.
  • City government and groups including TransFair Canada will examine how to invigorate local economic development through fair trade and sustainable purchasing.
  • The city's "Greenest City Action Team" including the manager of the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group will share advice on engaging people in change.
  • BC hydro will lead an interactive session on sustainable community energy.
  • Provincial official will examine convening action throughout British Columbia (Vancouver's province) that achieves settlement in balance with ecology.
  • Real estate experts including David Suzuki Foundation author Nicholas Heap will explain how climate change could impact the region's real estate.
  • Other cities, from New York City, with former Sustainable South Bronx's Majora Carter, (a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute along with Bill Rees and myself) to Berkeley, California, will have case studies presented. AAt in 
Key to a successful event will be how well presenters and activities engage systems approaches for resilient communities, rather than just repackaging siloed sustainability chestnuts under a new label.

Besides regional government organization Metro Vancouver's hosting of a session on "The Politics of Decision-Making for Sustainability," Vancouver is making attempts at coordinating with Seattle and Portland on how to make the Cascadia region a more interconnected and better managed bioregional market. Cascadia forces helped push Amtrak to connect Portland and Vancouver for the first time without border fees, for instance.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams will be at the event with a contingent from that Oregon city, as will Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

* The easy answer to my opening question, by the way, includes providing better regional collaboration, particularly in the area of land use, planning and transportation.

Unfettered growth in car-dependent sprawled communities proved during the past few years to be the biggest economic risk factor in real estate, endangering the whole US economy. Exurban Sun Belt homes and entire neighborhoods went from being hot properties to foreclosed or even largely abandoned, as rising gas price rises changed speculative economics from 2006-2009. 

Sprawl also has which has massive implications for higher average water, building and infrastructure energy use, increasing greenhouse gas production beyond tailpipes.

Which means that because of climate change, the issue of how to control and rethink sprawl on the regulatory and policy level should become a leading order of business in metro areas, states, nations and the world.

The unplanned sprawl that already exists will need to be re-engineered or "undone," which means that the alternatives provided by the Vancouvers and Portlands--transit-oriented development, multi-model mobility (including walking and biking), regional energy and food production--will need to be applied at regional levels throughout North America.

The suburbs and exurbs are ground zero for change, particularly in the United States, where though most people live in urban areas (79% in 2000), they do not live in big cities. Only a quarter of US residents live in cities above 100,000 in population, so no matter how green cities become, we must think in terms of metros and their smaller cities if we really want to prepare for the future.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency     

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i'd be very interested to attend, but i don't think i can make it from chicago...will there be a webcast or audio stream available?

Great to hear that green minded professionals assembled in Vancouver, a green city.

I've read a bit of city naysaying recently. One critique of cities is that they absorb quite a bit of bio capacity from other areas, requiring transport. Meaning, we cannot have Hong Kongs every 100 miles. Not at HK's current scale.

For Rome in 2,000 years ago this would have meant moving food and lumber from outlying areas, France and even Africa back to Rome. Intercity trade without capital flight can be good, but ecologically speaking if there is one metropolis pulling in resources from everywhere, that probably cannot last long before exhaustion from human population growth and increasing resource use per capita.

I read on CUNY's sustainability blog in 2007 that cities are "not green." Of course this meant that "green" is living closer to the land, in lieu of having urban arcologies. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcology

Various people say it, with a ring of truth. I've also seen the statement recently that "civilization comes at a price." I forget exactly where I read that statement. This also rings true, though I'm not sure how useful it is to say so. We will continue our urban experiments as long as we can, as the Greeks, Romans or Soviets did. Other generations of people in the future will make their attempts.

I'm all for some amount of civilization, even though it comes at a price and may be short lived, like steroid-powered athletic performance. Cities, like individuals, will come and go. I see that in neighborhood feel and among neighborhood communities in the time scale of my own lifetime. Imagine if you were able to view human history over geological periods of time. It would be obvious!

All the above aside, regional planning is a MUST for smart use of resources. The Soviets in their time had very resource efficient public transportation. This has undoubtedly helped Russia to have one HSR in place, vs zero for the US. (86mph Acela and 67mph BART do not count.) Many young Chinese and Indians are ga-ga over cars but the elites in those countries have long seen the value of rail transport.

The Portland example shows us best the benefits of regional planning. However, it is not impossible, especially as anyone can see from the examples of Phoenix, Charlotte, Denver or Atlanta. These cities have all unveiled brand new light rail systems with impressive ridership numbers in the last few years. All of them are beating projections.

Metro planning with teeth is urgently needed across America to make sure that all present and future energies are directed to long-term investments and projects that make sense, and will strengthen regional economies.

The future as I see it will be regional and local.

For nostalgia, watch Star Trek reruns. ;)

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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on October 19, 2009 8:48 AM.

Denver Nearly Doubles Public Transit Ridership--Despite Light Rail Expansion Delays was the previous entry in this blog.

Vancouver Strives for the Gold as World's Greenest City--can it become first Eco City-State? is the next entry in this blog.

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