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Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change - A 21st Century Survival Guide

by Sue Roaf, David Crichton, and Fergus Nicol


by Brian Walker and David Salt

Climate Wars, 

by Gwynne Dyer

The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 

by James Lovelock

Carbon Shift,

edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon

Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller,

by Jeff Rubin

Welcome To The Urban Revolution - How Cities Are Changing The World, 

by Jeb Brugmann


Resilience Science Blog by Resilience Alliance

HuffPost Green

Energy Bulletin: Website / blog regarding the peak in global energy supply.

Richard Heinberg's Museletters Blog

The Oil Drum: A website / blog providing peak oil related analysis's international campaign updates blog

RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.

The Guardian Data Store


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March 2010

Three Key Strategies for Building Urban Resilience

Mar 13, 2010 8:36 PM
Craig Applegath

 Craig Applegath, Moderator /BIO

“Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still remain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.”

Source: B. Walker et al, ‘Resilience, Adaptability and
Transformability in Social-ecological Systems’,
Ecology and Society 9 (2) p. 5

Last week I got a call from Gregory Green – the director of the documentary The End of Suburbia, as well as a judge on this year’s Design Ideas Competition - to discuss his upcoming documentary about resilient cities. Gregory has a great sense of curiosity about the world, so it is always a pleasure to chat with him about our mutual interest in resilient cities. In the course of our conversation, he asked me a very interesting question: “If you had to choose just three strategies to significantly increase the capacity for resilience of our cities to the future impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change, what would they be?” A very prescient question - given that every city’s resources are always limited, and real trade-offs always have to be made if a city’s capacity for resilience is to be increased.

This blog is therefore an attempt to think through and answer Gregory’s question.

When thinking about how best to answer this question, it was clear from the outset that defining clear criteria for selecting these strategies would be the heart of the exercise. The following chosen criteria are based on my past experience as an architect and urban designer in dealing with complex problems that have no one right answer or solution:

1. The strategies should have an impact that is in reasonable proportion to the resources that must be invested to achieve the intended result.

2. The strategies must be achievable with currently existing and easily accessible science and technology.

3. The strategies must be scalable and be able to be used at a small community scale, but also have the ability to be used at a larger regional scale.

4. The strategies must be able to be implemented without significant political upheaval.

5. The strategies must serve to contribute positively to the economic and cultural health of the community and city where they are implemented.

6. The selection of the best strategies should be consistent with the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule – that is, that the chosen strategies should, if compared to all the other strategies, be the 20% of strategies that produce 80% of the positive benefits.

Based on the above six criteria, I would propose that the following three strategies will be the most effective for building substantial additional resilience capacity into our communities and cities:

  1. Reduction of a city’s overall energy requirements

  2. Increasing a city’s key infrastructure capacity

  3. Re-localization of key functions into a city

1.  Reduce our city’s energy requirements: Our cities’ growing demand for energy, and especially fossil fuel energy, both in absolute and per capita terms, not only contributes to the problem of global warming, but, in the not too distant future, will become increasingly unsupportable as the emerging reality of peak oil economics begins to drive up oil prices to levels that will significantly impair the economic health of our now highly energy dependent urban and regional economies. Our ability to develop viable and economically sound strategies for reducing our cities’ demand for energy will be crucial for building the capacity for resilience to the future impacts of peak oil, while at the same time reducing the present negative impact of our cities on our global environment. I believe that in order to accomplish this, we will need to develop realistic strategies for both increasing the proportion of renewable energy our cities produce and use, and more importantly, develop strategies for reducing the current level of demand for energy through such key measures as:

  • Reducing the energy demand of our existing urban fabric:  through the implementation of much more comprehensive and aggressive programs for energy conservation such as the re-skinning our cities’ building fabric on a citywide scale. It is important to remember that close to 50% of all energy consumed in our cities is consumed in the heating and cooling buildings! Two very good examples putting this strategy into action are the Zero Footprint Building Re-Skinning Competition and the City of Toronto’s Mayor’s Tower Renewal Project .

  • Reducing our consumption of fossil fuels for transportation: by reducing our use and dependence on automobiles as our cities’ primary means of circulation by increasing urban density; by increasing our cities’ mass transportation capacity; and by increasing the proportion of mixed-use redevelopment in order to reduce logistics costs for movement of goods and services. A very inspiring and instructive example of a city significantly reducing the use and dependence of automobiles is the City of Chattanooga’s implementation of a free electric bus transit system to provide access to all of its downtown core from strategically located parking garages at the periphery of the city. (See a case study of the Chattanooga Electric Bus System )

2. Increase the capacity and effectiveness of our key infrastructure systems: In the developed world, our key infrastructure systems are reaching or have reached the end of their serviceable life. Electrical power generation and transmission grids; potable water and waste water systems; and public transportation systems are all now at capacity or beyond capacity and service life. There is therefore currently not a lot of resilience left in these systems – they are all frail and failing.

Moreover, our cities’ current economies seem barely able to afford the costs of operating and maintaining these existing systems in their present state, let alone redeveloping them in any comprehensive way. But there is a bigger problem looming. When we are forced to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, as the economic realities of peak oil begin to kick in, there will be even less economic capacity to allow for the redevelop of these systems. We must therefore begin to look for strategies for re-developing these important infrastructure systems before our economies begin to feel the bite of peak oil. Some of the important re-development opportunities that now present themselves include:

  • Electric Power Infrastructure Re-development: The development of “smart” power transmission grids to not only add the necessary new capacity to current aging and insufficient infrastructure, but to also facilitate the new world of electrical power supply and use where any user may also be a supplier. Also, given that renewable power sources, such as wind, solar thermal, and geothermal, are very often geographically separated from their end users, the development of high efficiency (low transmission power loss) direct current (DC) transmission corridors will also have to be developed at a continental scale.

  • Potable Water Supply Re-development: In many North American and European cities, existing water supply systems have reached the end of their functional life. As the impacts of future climate change causes droughts and reductions in water supplies in many locations around the world, cities will have to develop strategies for both water conservation, but also wastewater and grey water purification and reuse. These strategies should also be interlinked with new strategies for dealing with wastewater. A good example of how this might be accomplished can be found at John Todd’s website at .

3.   Develop strategies for re-localizing key functions that are currently predicated on cheap oil: As the economic pressures of Peak Oil reduce the economic logic of shipping food and manufactured goods great distances, the pressure to re-localize the key functions of food production and manufacturing will have huge implications for how our cities are planned and operated:

  • Re-localizing Food: We have to develop effective strategies for feeding our cities through local agricultural production to successfully respond to the impacts of rising transportation costs and agricultural production costs that will result from the rising cost of oil resulting from the economic logic of peak oil. A very innovative and future looking example of re-localizing food supply can be seen in Gordon Graff’s High Rise “Sky Farm” proposal, where the production of food is brought right into the city in the form of a highrise building designed as a completely integrated organic farm able to support 40,000 people. (see an article about Gordon's Sky Farm at Treehugger). More conventional strategies for conserving and re-developing farmland that used to surround most cities will become important for developing an overall food re-localization strategy for our cities.
Sky Farm Proposal by Gordon Graff 2009 (by permission of Author)

  • Re-localizing Manufacturing: Over the next decade, as the economic logic of peak oil begins to be felt around the world, cities will begin see the off-shored jobs returning from Asia and other parts of the developing world as rising shipping costs due to increased fuel costs kill the bottom-line advantage of off-shoring manufacturing to the lower cost labour markets. We will therefore need to develop city planning and design strategies to re-industrialize our cities in economically effective, and environmentally responsible ways. For an excellent treatment of this complexities of this issue see Jeff Rubin's new book, Why Your World is About to Get a Lot Smaller.

Now Is The Time To Re-develop Our Infrastructure!  The above three key strategies of reducing our cities’ overall energy requirements; increasing and re-developing infrastructure capacity; and re-localizing key functions, form what I believe to be the core components of what will be the most effective means of increasing the critically capacity necessary for the development of resilience to the future impacts of peak oil and global warming. Most importantly, because all three of these strategies will require significant public and private investment, our cities will have a much better chance of building addition capacity now while our economy is relatively unimpaired by the soon-to-come negative economic impacts of peak oil, rather than if we wait until these harsh economic impacts begin to be felt in the future. The question is: will we?

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this blog. The ideas expressed are core to my thinking about resiliency, and I hope will be helpful to those of you who are currently developing your ideas for the 2010 Design Ideas Competition.

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