Recently in Resiliency Category


I've returned from a sobering United Nations-led tour of six tsunami-damaged communities and two radiation-impacted cities in Northern Japan. The obvious conclusion: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is forcing Japan to go green, including the launch of a new renewable energy national feed-in tariff that starts in July. Meanwhile the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, told us that renewables will be the "key factor" in the revival of his devastated prefecture.

Though little planning is in evidence yet as to how this economic and energy transformation will be integrated, our UN tour did witness fragmented signs that Japan can provide a developed-nation resilience role model in the face of cultural, energy system and environmental devastation.

Organized by the Nagoya, Japan-based UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), we traveled for a week as part of a fact-finding mission with UNCRD director Chikako Takase and her staff. The mission was called "Reconstruction Towards Sustainable Communities" and my role was to advise Japanese community leaders on green economic development recovery strategies and opportunities. I had met with a range of clean tech energy companies and urban planning and design firms in preparation, as well as the US Department of Commerce.

I was joined by experts from five countries, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US. One fellow American represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seems our contingent was somewhat of a novelty. I was told by the UN and the US Embassy in Tokyo that we were one of the first (if not the first) from outside the three affected prefectures to meet with local leaders on reconstruction and post-disaster management planning.

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UN reconstruction tour group of Japan disaster areas, in Ishinomaki (photos Warren Karlenzig)

The tsunami-scoured coastal cities where some 20,000 died--bodies are still being discovered by white ships trolling the coast and on land by locals--are focused on the future of survivors. We visited temporary housing and just-opened temporary retail developments. These modular constructed units, complete with personal flairs such as lanterns, public benches and landscaping, house locally-owned shops from bars to barbers to fish mongers that were wiped out by the tsunami.

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Ofunato City temporary retail center

With 300,000 in the region driven from their homes by the "tsunami attack," communities submitted reconstruction plans including land use schemes to the national government. Redevelopment plans are in the process of being approved for funding, though actual rebuilding will not begin for years because of many factors: namely, the ground is still unstable or sinking in the coastal cities from the 9.0 subduction earthquake  (one tectonic plate going under another, causing one plate to sink). There were two medium-sized quakes while we in the region, one a 6.0 off the coast. A veteran of the California Loma Prieta quake of 1989, I recognized the tell-tale zig-zag signatures of earthquake damage in many buildings we visited.

Meanwhile, waste management issues, including removal of radiation and salt-contaminated soil and debris (petrochemicals are causing them to spontaneously combust) from the tsunami, also bedevil everyone from small farmers to civil authorities. In one city, they had 106 years worth of waste piled around what used to be the town center. The rest of Japan is disinclined to accept much of this waste because of potential radioactivity.

When and if they are able to build, the plans of two tsunami-ravaged cities stand out for being smart growth models. Ishinomaki was a pre-tsunami city of about 160,000: 4000 were killed by the tsunami, the most deaths of any city in Japan. Its entire port and low-lying downtown areas were virtually annihilated, with the odd building and remnant inexplicably standing, such as a domed cartoon art museum and, most bizarrely, a Statue of Liberty replica formerly housed in a pachinko parlor.

Ishinomaki has a plan to virtually wipe clean its remaining "ghost" downtown to create a mixed-use residential-commercial zone that will be two to three times more dense than before , according to city leaders we met. The city hopes to be more protected from the coast through site elevation, barriers and other features. The more vexing question is how to keep its young people from leaving the area for Tokyo and other big cities to the south: transit-oriented redesign will be one factor making younger citizens less likely to flee.

Another critical planning issue is how male-dominated Japan intends to ensure that all its citizens, including women, the elderly and handicapped in disaster-struck communities are part of the visioning process.

Rikuzentakata, a city of 22,000 (2,000 died in the tsunami), is making plans to make "new energy" a key part of its redevelopment vision. This city which was reported to have been "wiped off the map," by 65-foot (19.2 meter) waves is today pursuing national government subsidies and private investments to create large-scale distributed generation of renewables, including PV solar, land biomass (wood), marine biomass and offshore wind. Together with other nearby communities, Rikuzentakata is studying how to trade domestic CO2 credits for reduced emissions. The city's quest for zero waste and zero CO2 emissions also has it exploring industrial ecology strategies: i.e., using fish bones, tsunami debris wastes or other byproducts such as waste heat to be used as inputs for new processes.

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Rikuzentakata debris

We also toured a small community-supported organic farm in southern Fukushima Prefecture, outside the town of Iwaki. A volunteer non-profit had recruited helpers the previous summer to remove radiated soil--the farmers showed us how subsequent tests for radiation had recently come up negative. Meanwhile the "hot" soil they had dug out and scraped away was still heaped in a pile, because the national government would not remove or receive it, as the farmers had been led to believe they would.

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Farmer Ryoji Sato (left) at small community-supported farm outside Iwaki (above) and Soto showing map of reduced radiation levels in farm soil over period 2011 through March 2012 

Lunch found us back in Iwaki eating at a small take-out place in someone's home. Although every item served was organic and local, including mushrooms, for once in my life this type of fare made me lose my appetite. 

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Locally produced organic food lunch in Iwaki

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan relied on nuclear energy for 25-33% of its needs. This summer the last two remaining nuclear plants operating in Japan (out of 54) will be shut down, at least temporarily, and there are many signs throughout the nation that electric power is already in short supply. Although outdoor temperatures were hovering in the 20s and 30s (0 to -4C), we attended multiple meetings circled around one or two kerosene heaters, in buildings using almost no electric light, without the use of central indoor heating. Is this a glimpse into what a business-as-usual energy future looks like in other industrial countries?

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Meeting with Kamaishi city business, fishery and agricultural leaders

One meeting in a luxury high-rise hotel in Minami Sanriku had a planned blackout for two hours while we met with business and community volunteer leaders, along with the hotel's owner, who had sheltered and fed 400 community members after the tsunami (the bottom two stories were damaged but the rest of the building was habitable). Staff handed out heavy winter parkas so we could continue our discussions in relative warmth.

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Minami Sanriku shrine (photo Warren Karlenzig)

Besides jackets, Japan has been using technology to cope with its new dilemma. Utility sponsored websites and mobile apps let people know exactly when to conserve the most, which they have been doing by hanging wet clothes to dry in south-facing windows or balconies, and by curtailing use of light, heat or appliances. So far Japanese society has reduced its energy use to meet a 30% power deficit, but the margin between rolling or planned blackouts and power is paper thin, even in Tokyo.

Later this month, our delegation will be working with UNCRD to develop recommendations based upon our visit of the Tohoku Region's three tsunami and radiation-impacted prefectures. My prediction is that Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima will remain in the global consciousness not only for this one-year anniversary of their triple disaster, but for the lessons they underscore for all of us as we make our way into an uncertain future for energy, water, food, and shelter in the wake of disasters, natural or not.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and co-author of the United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.


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"Ecocity" is a popular designation for dozens of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal, Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations--all trying to plan how the city can be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches and economic need: they'll go from harboring more than half of the planet's people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050. The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above); Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland in 2010.

A host of other cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan ("Caofeidian International Eco-city"are modeled as eco-cities, while India is also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai transportation and industrial corridor. Japan, which has been helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or "eco towns."

The term "ecocity" was first used by Richard Register in 1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities, called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders' Register, Executive Director Kirstin Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS--Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal--will also participate. These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system "conditions" or categories. Cities will eventually be analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have an integral relationship to the city's bioregions (bioregional mapping will become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·         Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access to close-by employment options.

·         Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within buildings, the city's air shed, and the atmosphere.

·         Healthy Soil: Soils meet their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·         Clean and Safe Water: Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city's water sources, waterways and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·         Responsible Resources/ Materials: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated, managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·         Clean and Renewable Energy: The city's energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·         Healthy and Accessible Food: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·         Healthy Biodiversity: The city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·         Earth's Carrying Capacity: The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the Earth's bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting regional ecological integrity.

·         Ecological Integrity: The city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·         Healthy Culture: The city facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social learning.

·         Community Capacity Building: The city supports full and equitable community participation in decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·         Healthy and Equitable Economy: An economy favoring economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options - the foundation for "green jobs".

·         Lifelong Education: All residents have access to lifelong education including access to information about the city's history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social institutions.

·         Well Being--Quality of Life: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth's Carrying Capacity). These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True, international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US Green Building Council's LEED, and the BREEAM standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a city sustainable. With the cooperation of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future of more extreme risk--which equals opportunity.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.   

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China's new national 2011-2015 economic plan--essentially also its green blueprint--is now starting to be unveiled, then will be finalized by the People's Congress in March. China is aiming at reforming the world's second largest economy by optimizing it for low-carbon, resource efficient and urban climate change-adapted performance, as it takes on 400 to 700 million more people in its teeming cities as part of the world's most ambitious socio-economic transformation.

"China is the earliest developing country in the world to map out its plan for ecological growth," said Wang Ronghua, President of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, at the Fourth World Forum on China Studies, held earlier in November. "It will be a daunting task to restructure. There is a huge amount of funding available for this effort. This is being done because in the next three decades China will not be able to support 1.3 billion or more people." (China currently has more than 1.33 billion people.)

The new national "12th Five-Year Plan" (twelfth, that is, since formation as the People's Republic in 1949), covers its industrial, economic and social development. The gist of the new plan:  a new focus on quality of development rather than on quantity only. China wants to strengthen the nation's low-carbon economy while trying to repair the extensive environmental and human health damage it has sustained during its 30-year race to lead global industrial production.

The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) included goals of lowering energy consumption per unit of GDP. For China's provincial and city governments that means energy consumption per unit of GDP must decrease by 20 percent in 2010 compared to 2005. 

With its new national plan, China is now building on the goal of energy efficiency with a more full-scale sustainability agenda, featuring reduced carbon intensity (cutting carbon emissions per every unit of economic output, or GDP) combined with overall environmental restoration and management practices. This focus will increase investments in renewables, information and communications technologies, advanced transportation and materials, water supply and treatment technologies (including using plants for bioremediation), and air and water quality. In other words, China is trying to improve its quality of life, which would benefit investment, tourism, and ecosystem services, not to mention the health of humans, along with animal and marine species.

Part of this strategy rests upon moving the nation from being "factory to the world" to becoming a provider of services such as information and communications technologies, financial services, and other less-polluting business sectors, while also maintaining a global lead in manufacturing clean energy and other "value-added" technologies for export.

Draft language from the new Plan that was read to my Institute for Strategic Resilience (ISR) colleagues and me during my recent visit to China includes the directive for government officials to comprehensively, "Use technology and administration to transform mode of development to an eco-friendly and low-carbon lifestyle. Ensure that economic development confirms with environmental protection."

It was announced last week that the nation is also preparing to comprehensively monitor chemical and organic pollutants in both the air and water: currently only 200 pollutants are monitored versus 1,200 in the United States. Ambitious goals, yes, but China appears to be willing to attempt to back them on the ground.

The country began this summer a national low-carbon pilot program focused on five provinces and eight cities. Through the pilot programs, it is attempting to leverage best-of-breed strategies and tactics from localized sustainability plans, projects and methods. This simultaneous top-down (12th Five Year Plan) and regional approach (pilots) will likely make China even more competitive in the development of new clean energy technologies and services.

China has already surpassed all other nations in the production of PV solar and wind technologies: one showcase city is the renewable production center of Baoding, a city of one million near Beijing with more than 20,000 new clean energy jobs in three years. Baoding is the smallest of China's eight pilot low carbon cities. The largest pilot is almost-megacity Shenzhen, with a population of nine million. In all, the pilot provinces and cities comprise 27 percent of the nation's population and 36 percent of China's national Gross Domestic Product. China is providing incentives for its cleantech companies through subsidies to manufacturers of solar film, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, and it is offering subsidies to consumers to purchase electric cars.

China announced December 4 that it is bolstering its renewables to get 500 Gigawatts (GW) of renewable power by 2020, which will be about one third of its total national power production by that year. This includes adding 125 GW (from 25 GW now) of wind power, and adding almost 20 GW of solar, from half a Gigawatt now. Other areas that will be boosted under the plan include ethanol, biodiesel, biomass and biogas production.

My observations and findings are fresh from a visit during October-November. I was a UN delegate to a one-day summit on "Urban Innovation and Sustainable Development," which was held as part of the closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai ("Better City, Better Life"), the largest world expo ever in terms of size, attendance, global participation and investment. The development of low carbon and green technologies, along with public education on moving toward more sustainable behaviors, was the key theme in the four pavilions sponsored by China and visited by tens of millions of Chinese citizens.

At the headquarters of its all-powerful State Council in Beijing, my ISR colleagues and I met with national government and academic sector experts about development of China's green economic research and planning. We were briefed at the State Council by economic, eco-city and low-carbon experts from the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a top national think tank affiliated with the State Council. Our itinerary included a visit with government officials in a medium-sized city for a glimpse of how local governments in China are already attempting to balance sustainability management with economic development. More about the local angle in my next post.

During the excellent Fourth World Forum on China Studies in Shanghai, we were invited to present along with 20 academic, corporate and government experts on "Green Development." (More than 300 China experts participated in the overall forum, most of them from China.)

At the opening of the Green Development Sub Forum, Professor Wang Ronghua, former President of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a well-known editor on Deng Xiaoping's theories, ticked down a list of the nation's current state, making it obvious why China is moving toward comprehensive sustainability planning, measurement and management:

Water and Wastewater: "Fresh water supply is in danger because of rapid depletion--heavy industrial growth has caused the consumption of too much water." Wang Ronghua said. "China is one the most water scarce countries in the world. Lakes and rivers are viewed as sinks in which to discharge wastewater. Hebei province's lakes were once beautiful. Now they are highly lethal, the same with the Yellow and other rivers. Fresh water will become more scarce than oil in China, which is an inconceivable future."

Resource and Energy Use: "The consumption of mineral resources is occurring faster than production because of crude modes of production rather than making better uses of natural resources. China uses 17 percent of the world's total energy supply: it used 2.8 billion tons of coal in 2009, which will rise to 10 billion tons by 2030, which means China will rely on imported energy as it only produces four tons per year." (From 2007 to 2009, China's moved to being a net coal importer for the first time in its history. Oil imports also reached 52 percent in 2009, while its new car sales surpassed those of the US for the first time the same year. National car ownership will multiply by a factor of three or more between now and 2020.)

Land Use and Planning: "There are dilemmas about how to protect and make better use of land resources. Too much land is consigned for development and conceded, especially in coastal and eastern China. In Shanghai, five years' supply of land planned for new development has been used up in one year."

Waste: "Ninety percent of urban waste is landfilled. Garbage is increasing at 10 percent annually--out of six hundred big cities, one third are besieged by garbage and waste."

Air Pollution and Climate Change: "Acid rain and CO2 emissions will double by 2020.  High-polluting industries are also pillar industries," Wang Ronghua concluded. (Beijing's air pollution recently was said to be at a "crazy bad" level on Twitter by the US Embassy, which was later deleted and changed to "beyond index.") The Asian Development Bank estimated in 2008 that more than half of the world's increase in greenhouse gases through 2027 will come from Asian cities, a majority of that increase from the cities of China.

The most urgent challenge will be getting changes made at local levels. Ronghua said that the "costs of breaking the law are too low, there is not enough enforcement or enforcement is uneven with the same violation receiving different punishment."

Through its State Council and its operational arm, the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), China is actively considering how it can develop models and indicators that will guide ecological restoration and green economic development in conjunction with traditional economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As part of its low carbon pilot province and city programs, regional and local governments are pledging to reduce carbon intensity, or carbon emissions per unit of GDP economic output, by up to 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. (See today's advertising supplement from China Daily, which also appeared on p. A12 of the New York Times).

There is a growing acknowledgment in China that economic growth cannot be an all-consuming goal. For 30 years, with an average annual national growth rate of 10 percent, China's GDP has for many years surpassed growth of other nations, but at what cost?

Zhou Fengqi, Director of the Center for Eco-Economy and Sustainable Development at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, spoke of the need for systemic change in China: "China needs to change from the consumption of products to consumption of services."

Exactly how China will achieve its ambitious goals for a greener national economy will now emerge from numerous releases and announcements surrounding the new 12th Five Year Plan. Key to its success will be how systemically national leadership can help develop objective measures for provincial and city leaders that provide clear and consistent goals for industries, business and citizens.

It's time for China to look at its cities, communities and centers of expertise for leadership and scalable solutions to help reverse the degradation of nature and quality of human life--along with the damage to its economy--that has occurred (or will occur) because of air, water and soil pollution, and global climate change. While many restorative activities will help bring new economic growth opportunities, they will also ensure that China has a base of natural resources for its cities that can sustain a viable quality of life.

The country must now decouple its economic growth from manufacturing while incorporating a more diversified (and less material intensive) base, in order to remain economically viable in the future. Said Wang Ronghua, "Instead of only focusing on GDP measurements, the government needs to provide more parameters on ecology and living standards, including improvement of culture."

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.   


Big surprise for me today, as the formidable Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has seconded my analysis of how communities need to prepare for changing conditions related to the economy, climate and resource availability.

Kaid Benfield, NRDC's director of Smart Growth reviewed my recent posts about the urgent need for urban resilience planning in a NRDC blog post today titled "What Cities Should do to Become More Resilient (and It's Not What they are Doing Currently)."  Benfield writes, "NRDC has chosen sustainable communities as one of its strategic priorities for the next five years. Karlenzig's advice seems right on target as we further refine that agenda."

That advice was recently provided for Green Flow readers here in a two-part series. Part 1 was "Urban Resilience Planning for Dummies" and Part 2 was "Urban Resilience Planning for Dummies: Failing the Milk Test."

These posts were teasers for a standalone publication I wrote that is coming out very soon from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), titled, "The Death of Sprawl: Designing Urban Resilience for the 21st Century Climate and Resource Crises."

A shorter version of "The Death of Sprawl" will also appear in the Post Carbon Reader, which is being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media this summer, alongside writings from PCI's other 27 fellows.

I'm honored to be profiled and credited by author Kaid Benfield, who besides his affiliation with NRDC, is one of the top thinkers, doers and writers in the urban planning realm.

A few months back when I published an excerpt from a case study on Victorville, California-- where sprawled finished luxury houses were demolished last year after the exurban foreclosure meltdown--I learned that Benfield was one of the first people to write about the incident in his NRDC blog, which includes graphic video footage of what may be a watershed moment in the end of exurbia.

Besides being ever-prescient, Benfield's "almost daily" blogging provides readers a detailed perspective of what's right, what's wrong and what needs to be drastically improved in the way our communities have been planned, developed and operated.

Thanks, Kaid.

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.



Last week, a report was put out by a Kuwaiti research institution (chart above) forecasting global peak oil production by 2014. This follows a report last month by a broad-based British industry group that also predicted a global "oil crunch," or shortage of supply, by the same period.

Very few metro regions, cities or businesses are prepared for the impact of these potential global issues on their economies or finances, operating budgets and mobility.

I asked Richard Heinberg, author of numerous books about peak oil and other peaking resources (freshwater, fisheries, soil, etc.), if he agreed with the British industry report, which was partially backed by Richard Branson and the Virgin Group. Heinberg said that it appeared credible, and added that having a billionaire transportation industry CEO assert that we better get ready should make people at least take more notice.

Cities, households and the economy will be impacted, as will industries. Some industries will be hurt (agriculture, retail, petrochemicals) and some sectors could be positively impacted (smart growth planners, alternative transportation providers, "smart city" technology providers, alternative fuel producers, mixed-use and infill developers)

Whether it's bonafide peaking of global oil supplies, or a short- to medium-term "oil crunch," the initial result will be the same. Rapidly rising gas prices and price instability should become evident by 2013, or even earlier if there are any supply shocks because of natural disasters (hurricanes in Gulf), political events, war and terrorists acts.

So let's assume that these two reports, Heinberg, and the CEOs of companies such as Total and Shell oil have been correct--we will be facing at least a temporary oil crunch that drives prices up to or near levels reached in 2008 when oil hit $147 a barrel. What will likely happen and how can regions, cities and business in particular prepare?

Mobility Choices

The most obvious area of impact of rising oil prices is transportation and mobility. During the gas price rises of 2006-2008, U.S. citizens turned to public transportation in record numbers. Light rail ridership was the biggest winner, as was an old and reliable form of gas-free transportation, the bicycle. The biggest losers: SUVs (RIP Hummer) and personal automotive use. Across the nation, people substantially reduced their driving for the first time in decades, particularly in metro areas that had other mobility options.

One of the smartest steps communities can take to prepare for oil price and supply volatility is to maintain public transit service levels. It is especially ill-advised to cut public transit systems to fund highway or automotive-based initiatives: a transit district in suburban San Francisco, for instance, is cutting public transit service to help pay for a $75 million road improvement project.

Getting light rail funded and built by 2014 or 2015 is not likely in areas without pending efforts, so metro areas should also investigate other means of mobility investments, including:

  • Bus Rapid Transit systems or routes
  • Pedestrian-cycling infrastructure
  • Multi-modal transportation hubs
  • Car-sharing programs for city employees, businesses and residents
  • Designated carpooling stops and incentives
  • Technologies enabling transit use, car-sharing and car pooling  

Alternative Transportation

The need for higher-mileage vehicles is a given, with climate change concerns and resource constraints. Hybrids are one solution, as are electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. One consideration for using electricity to power vehicles, however, is that it puts more demand on grid energy. In large parts of the country primarily using coal to make power (Eastern, Southeastern and upper Plains states) this causes more coal to be burned, exacerbating regional air pollution, global climate change, and coal mining's nasty environmental impacts.

In terms of automobiles or light trucks, the ideal transportation technology is photo-voltaic charged plug-in hybrids. After up-front investments are completed, these vehicles can perform low carbon and pollutant-reduced service over many years, with minimal relative fuel costs.

Biofuels are a promising solution if they are not competing for food supplies, which is the challenge of using corn-based ethanol, for instance. Celluosic biofuels from crop or forest waste products are at least five years off in terms of mass production. Hydrogen fuel cell R&D has been de-emphasized by the current US Department of Energy administration, so don't expect any big advances in that technology in this country during the next decade. 

Real Estate

The biggest winners during 2006-2008 were mixed-used developments near transit, with walkable shopping, jobs, entertainment, and other services. Apartments and townhouses are likely to fare much better than single-family houses unless the houses are in walkable communities served by transit and local amenities. Biggest losers: Exurban sprawl, where car dependency can be near 100% in some communities for jobs, shopping, school, entertainment and socializing. The higher gas prices go, the more isolating and bankrupting this type of living becomes: and the less anyone else will care to pay for it.

Hardest hit exurban areas are in sprawled inland Southern California, Florida and greater Phoenix. Said the March 17 New York Times of Phoenix: "The worst-off of these projects were built in marginal locations on the outskirts of the metropolitan area, and stand completely empty months and even years after completion."

"We've got some see-through shopping centers," said David Wetta, senior vice president and managing director in the Phoenix office of the real estate brokerage Marcus & Millichap.

The Economy

Jobs will need to have access to public transportation, car sharing and walkable or bikeable shopping, versus the isolated exurban corporate office park. Employers or regions that cannot offer these "table stakes" might as well get out of the game, or be prepared to pay ultra high prices or extra costs, whether they are trying to attract employees, companies or industries.

Reducing long-term fuel operating costs in government vehicle fleets can be accomplished with electric, natural-gas powered flex-fueled vehicles, and alternative fuels such as biodiesel, which became more economical than oil-based fuels in certain markets during 2006-2008.


Alachua County, Florida, is the first county in the nation to begin formally assessing how long range land use and transportation planning can be optimized to address peaking oil. A handful of US cities, including Denver, Oakland and Portland, Oregon have launched peak oil task forces. My colleague at the Post Carbon Institute, Daniel Lerch, has written Post Carbon Cities, the first primer for communities on preparing for peaking oil, and that should be first on any list for recommended reading for government officials.

"Since World War II, our energy 'normal' has been a cheap and stable supply of oil, and we built our economies, cities and suburbs on that assumption." said Lerch. "That era ended in 2008, and the 'new 'normal' is an increasingly expensive and volatile supply of oil. Those cities that recognize this and adjust their planning, infrastructure, and revenue assumptions accordingly are the ones that will succeed in the 21st century."

A variety of information and communications technology advances are being deployed or tested that will be invaluable during the next oil crunch: examples include hand-held transit system alerts and dedicated websites for car-sharing, carpooling, and for group walking or biking to school (safety in numbers). Even Twitter is being used for tweets when people need to, say, share a cab to the city from an airport.

In 2008, when oil reached its historic high, Walkscore began to be used by people who were considering buying a home, renting an apartment, getting a new job or traveling in a different city. Now Walkscore has introduced maps of whole neighborhoods so people know which locations have what types of walkable destinations surrounding them on a district-wide basis.

It's a brave new world out there when it comes to problems that will result from peaking oil. We can either continue to live in complete denial, or we can start the process of adaptation to the post-oil economy.

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.


Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience planning in the face of climate change and diminishing resources (especially fresh water and oil). Considering these guidelines, what aspect of U.S. metro development stands out as the most ill-advised and risky? Short answer: exurban sprawl.

If the "Great Recession" taught us anything, it is that allowing the unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient communities and infrastructure is a now-bankrupt economic development strategy and constitutes a recipe for continued disaster on every level.

"Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive," was the warning the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers gave institutional and commercial real estate investors in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report.

I make the further case that the exurban economic model is an outright anachronism in the Post Carbon Institute's Post Carbon Reader, which comes out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media.

Much of US "economic growth" in the 1990s and early 2000s was based on the roaring engine of exurban investment speculation with gas at historic record low prices. That bubble popped on the spike of $4 a gallon; we now are paying the piper with abandoned tract developments, foreclosed strip malls and countless miles of roads to nowhere. Gas prices are forecast to head over $3 this summer, and likely much higher when a forecast global "oil crunch" hits by 2014 or so. 

Besides the economic risks, circa-twentieth-century sprawl has destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable drinking water systems at great environmental, economic, and social cost. We can no longer manage and develop our communities with no regard for the limits of natural resources and ecological systems that provide our most basic needs.

A shining alternative is metropolitan areas that have begun to plan for the future by building their resilience with economic, energy, and environmental uncertainty in mind: top U.S. metro locations include Portland, Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Denver, and suburbs such as Davis, California and Alexandria, Virginia. These communities are employing some of the following key strategies that underpin resilient urbanism:

Build and re-build denser and smarter

Most U.S. suburban and urban population or use densities need to be increased so that energy-efficient transportation choices like public transit, bicycling and walking can flourish. Multi-modal mobility cannot succeed at the densities found in most American suburban communities today. Increasing density doesn't have to mean building massive high-rises: adding just a few stories on existing or new mixed-use buildings can double population density--and well-designed, increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic vitality.

Focus on water use efficiency and conservation

Our freshwater supply is one of our most vulnerable resources in the United States. Drought is no longer just a problem for Southwestern desert cities--communities in places like Texas, Georgia and even New Jersey recently had to contend with water shortages. As precipitation patterns become less reliable and underground aquifers dry up, more communities will need to significantly reduce water demand through efficiency, conservation, restrictions and "tiered pricing," which means a basic amount of water will be available at a lower price; above average use will become increasingly expensive the more that is used.

Global climate change is already thought to be melting mountain snowpack much earlier than average in the spring, causing summer and fall water shortages. This has serious planning and design implications for many metro areas. For example, Lake Mead, which provides 90% of the water used by Las Vegas (above photo) and is a major water source for Phoenix and other Southwestern cities, has a projected 50% chance of drying up for water storage by 2021.

Focus on food

Urban areas need to think much bigger and plan systemically for significantly increased regional and local food production. Growing and processing more food for local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while generally reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food to metro regions. In Asia and Latin America--even in big cities like Shanghai, China; Havana, Cuba; and Seoul, South Korea--there are thriving small farms interspersed within metro areas.

Gardens--whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of buildings--can supplement our diets with fresh local produce. Denver's suburbs, for instance, have organized to preserve and cultivate unsold tract home lots for community garden food production.

Think in terms of inter-related systems

If we view our urban areas as living, breathing entities--each with a set of basic and more specialized requirements--we can better understand how to transform our communities from random configurations into dynamic, high-performance systems. The "metabolism" of urban systems depends largely on how energy, water, food and materials are acquired, used and, where possible, reused. From these ingredients and processes (labor, use of knowledge) come products, services, and--if the system is efficient--minimal waste and pollution

Communities and regions should decide among themselves which initiatives reduce their risks and provide the greatest "bang for the buck." Like the emergence of Wall Street's financial derivatives crisis in 2007, if we are kept in the dark about the potential consequences of our planning, resource and energy use in light of climate change or energy shortages, future conditions will threaten whole regional economies when they emerge.

Imagine if Las Vegas informed its residents and tourists on one 120-degree summer day that they would not be able to use a swimming pool or shower, let alone golf, because there simply wasn't any water left. Odds are that the days are numbered for having one's own swimming pool and a large, lush ornamental lawn in the desert Southwest, unless new developments and desert cities are planned with water conservation as having the highest design priority. 

By thinking of urban areas as inter-related systems economically dependent on water, energy, food and vital material resources, communities can begin to prepare for a more secure future. Merely developing a list of topics that need to be addressed--the "checklist" approach--will not prepare regional economies for the complexity of new dynamics, such as energy or water supply shortages, rising population, extreme energy price volatility and accelerating changes in regional climate influenced by global climate change.

Next Steps? Time to fold the climate action plan into a resilience action plan, so communities can addresses not only global climate change emissions, but also more urgent economic risks posed by climate change adaptation and resource availability.

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.


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.   



About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); the 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 sustainability policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries in the Resiliency category.

Planning / Land Use is the previous category.

Sustainability is the next category.

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