Urban Resilience Planning for Dummies

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With all the efforts going into urban climate action plans and carbon reduction, will many cities and suburbs be caught unprepared for other sustainability crises, such as acute water or energy shortages?

In carbon reduction management, should efforts such as focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency deserve the highest priority, when a city such as San Francisco produces 78 percent of its greenhouse gases from transportation and only 17 percent from buildings? 

These are questions that both policy makers and sustainability planners need to consider as we move into an era of climate change compounded by either diminishing resources and/or resources that are expected to continue to have extreme price volatility, such as gasoline.  

My last post reviewed the findings of a UK industry study, partially backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Group, forecasting a major "oil crunch" by 2014-15 that could potentially mean shorter supplies and much higher prices for gasoline. Because US cities do not use oil for electric power generation (Honolulu is the only one that still does), there should be much more focus in US cities on transportation and in other key areas that will be more severely impacted by the high price of oil. Cities should look at everything from citizen and business mobility options, to supplies such as asphalt for street paving, to regional food security.

At no time has effective planning, land use and public transit been so key to ensuring economic vitality, as well as equity (access to jobs and services with transit), environmental sustainability, climate security and health. That doesn't mean that increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency shouldn't be part of every community's planning, projects and budgets. It does mean that cities will need to simultaneously prioritize action plans for carbon reduction, peaking energy and peaking freshwater, which very few are doing, outside of those involved in the Transition Town movement.

To help illustrate the complexities of what I'm getting at, consider the following example. Water use in California accounts for 20 percent of electrical power use. This energy is needed to move water supplies from places with water to those largely without or to treat drinking water and wastewater.

Renewable energy sources such as solar thermal generating plants also require great amounts of water, competing for precious water supplies that can be used for drinking water and growing or processing food.

So where do water, oil or grain shortages fit in your city's or region's sustainability plan? There are no easy answers, and metro regions and cities will want to collectively consider their own energy, water and food sources when trying to assess combined carbon reduction goals and resource depletion risk factors.

I've developed some general urban resiliency rules of thumb for an upcoming chapter in the Post Carbon Institute's Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises, which is coming out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media:

  1. Planning: Enable the development of vibrant mixed-use communities and higher-density regional centers, that create a sense of place, allow for transportation choices (other than private automobiles), and protect regional agricultural, watershed, and wildlife habitat lands.
  2. Mobility: Invest in high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit infrastructure with easy access, shared connectivity and rich information sources, from signage to cell phone alerts.
  3. Built Environment: Design new buildings and associated landscaping--and retrofit existing buildings--for state-of-the-art energy (smart grid applications), and resource efficiency, integrated with mobility options.
  4. Economy: Support businesses in order to provide quality local jobs and to meet the needs of the new economy with renewable energy and other "green" technologies and services. Support local and regional economic decision-makers in adapting to the new world of rising prices, volatile energy supplies and national demographic shifts.
  5. Food: Develop regional organic food production, processing, and metro-area distribution networks.
  6. Resources: Drastically cut use of water, waste and materials, re-using them whenever possible.
  7. Management: Engage government, businesses and citizens together in resilience planning and implementation; track and communicate the successes, failures, and opportunities of this community-wide effort.

These categories are not meant to be "checklist" items for sustainability or resilience planning, but rather lay out the relevant areas that should comprise planning for integrated metro area systems. Each metro area and every city should be looking at these factors together, in order to model how well they are prepared to collaboratively contend with risks such as:


1.      Changing regional or local climate: extreme heat events, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events

2.      Prolonged drought, e.g. loss of mountain snowpacks or aquifers providing water for residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural use

3.      Oil crunches, including extreme price volatility; supply shocks from wars, political events, terrorism, natural disasters

4.      Food security risks from high oil prices, drought, energy-food competition (biofuels), large-scale contamination, etc.

Admittedly, the overlapping and inextricable problems that cities face today can be overwhelming, especially when budgets are tight or non-existent, and people's time is stretched to the breaking point.

Selective problem solving, such as climate action planning if it is done in isolation from resilience planning, however, may lend a false sense of security for cities on the brink of an era that promises to be very different than anything ever experienced in the past.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.   


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Great Post, Warren! I completely agree. Many people are easily distracted by the more visible and controversial CO2 problems (wind vs. solar, food vs. fuel, etc) and tend to forget about massive problems concerning land use, planning and public transportation. As a few of my professors were fond of saying "Fix the worst first!". Lowering our buildings' carbon footprint will not do much good if we are still traveling long distances in larger, inefficient vehicles to get from place to place.

I like this approach to long-term urban planning. I wonder if the Romans, Mayans or Rapa Nui had similar planning groups. Some people like Diamond and Tainter would argue that there is no way to do long-term planning.

Still others would point to the Chinese who for 40 centuries maintained a continuous rice cultivation culture, though not without periodic famine, war and plague -- with their fascinating "night soil" recycling method of farming. (This also being practiced in Japan up until the Edo period.)

What few people ever look at is human population. One exception is the Chinese government. Knowing their own history, they proceeded to control their domestic human breeding with a one-child policy. It's unfortunate they didn't have a two-child policy as this would seem more amenable to Western minds. The Chinese today (@copenhagen?) claimed that this policy had led to 400 million fewer Chinese being alive and eating up resources, which avoided a 25% additional increase in CO2 and other pollution. The writers of Limits to Growth (a book which seems more relevant each decade) modeled human population growth as well.

According to Limits to Growth, or another study, the peak in fossil fueled GDP per capita was reached in 1978. (Reminding us that the "Industrial" Revolution was really a Fossil Fuels Revolution.)

I am hearing more each day about how human population is the central core of all other problems. But for some countries (Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Japan) with declining human populations, maybe their human population dilemma has already been solved. At great "human" cost.

Many Central California Coastal cities have already overdrafted their groundwater supplies: Monterey, Carmel, Salinas (bad water quality to boot), Seaside... I guess those folks will move to Santa Cruz. These problems will sort themselves out. Since collective planning has proven unworkable to date with our imperfect political system, nature will do our work for us. (disasters, declining populations, etc.)

The upcoming book you are working on reminds me of Richard Register's EcoCity Berkeley book. I have a copy and it is dated 1987. He has the general concepts down: livable city, more open space, far fewer cars, more bikes, walking and mixed use buildings.

Brian, your comment makes sense in theory but you have to look at the feasibility of changing the way public transportation works over making more manageable improvements in buildings.

Even though they don't emit the most greenhouse gases, buildings are essentially the low hanging fruit here that should be taken care of WHILE the cars/buses/trains are worked on as well.

Stephen: it's not just cars/ buses and trains we need to work on. First, we need to change where we build houses, business, offices and jobs and schools so they are accessible to walking, biking and other mixed-use amenities. And we need to get people to change their driving habits, to carpool, gang up errands, and yes, choose to make life and work choices so they don't need to always drive. It's hugely manageable right now. In my town, for instance, through a parent-and bicycle-coalition sponsored Bike and Walk to School Program, we've seen our local schools go from very few kids walking and biking to about half doing so, which saves thousands of car trips a year.

Great post,I think you clearly describe the world we are live in.There is an exhaustible list of things to change.There are lots to be said but without wasting time in point out what have already been said why did us not take the time to find some solutions.This is the first thing to be done.There are good ideas to be debated on as yours.

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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 March 3, 2010 12:41 PM.

Preparing for 2014-15 "Oil Crunch" Forecast by UK Industry Group was the previous entry in this blog.

Prius Freeway Chase: An OJ Moment for Hybrids? is the next entry in this blog.

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