A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of making a presentation at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Festival of Architecture in Montreal. The theme of the conference was new visions for the future, and I set out to show how we might make our cities more resilient in the face of an unholy trinity: Climate Change, Peak Oil and Global Population Growth.
In preparing my talk it was clear that the most difficult thing about this topic is the magnitude of the problems. Indeed, once you have mapped them out, it’s hard to see solutions that are adequate.
I was rescued from this dilemma by a friend who told me the starfish story. It wonderfully captures the need for taking action, even in the face of overwhelming odds.
A woman vacationing on the west coast of Vancouver Island was walking down a deserted beach at sunset. She saw another woman in the distance, repeatedly bending down, picking things up, and throwing them into the water.
As she got closer, the first woman realized that the other woman was picking up starfish that had washed up on the beach. Puzzled, she asked her what she was doing.
“I'm saving these starfish. You see, it’s low tide right now, and if I don't throw them back, they'll die from lack of oxygen.”
“But there must be thousands of starfish on this beach!” said the first woman. “You can't possibly get to all of them. Can't you see that throwing them back can't possibly make a difference?”
The second woman smiled, picked up another starfish, threw it back, and replied, "Made a difference to that one!"
The problems posed by the combination of climate change, peak oil and population growth do indeed seem overwhelming, and it’s hard to imagine how we will deal with them. But as the starfish story points out, the difficulty of our situation should not prevent us from trying to make a difference.
So what should we be doing? Here are three suggestions:
1. Reduce our Energy Use: Most of our environmental problems stem from too many people on the planet using too much energy – of all sorts, for all sorts of reasons. As planners, architects and engineers, our first priority must be to devise ways to significantly reduce the consumption of energy by buildings and cities. To accomplish this we should:
o Use materials and products that require less energy for their manufacture and construction.
o Design new buildings to be highly energy efficient.
o Find ways to re-clad existing buildings to be more energy efficient
o Increase the density of our urban neighbourhoods to reduce travel distance and use of cars
2. Plan and Design for Local Self-sufficiency and Re-localization: The descent down the far side of the peak oil curve will mean that as oil prices rise, the globalization of trade will become less feasible [see Jeff Rubin’s new book: Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller ]. It will be crucial for us to increase the future resiliency of our cities by re-localizing the production of food and manufacture of goods. For an idea of how we might do this have a look at Gordon Graff’s ideas for high-rise urban farming at http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/skyfarm-gordon-graff.php.
3. Design for Durability and Robustness: Climate change is making itself felt, with ever- increasing numbers of category 4 and 5 weather events. [See the World Watch Institute’s latest report on this at Devastating Natural Disasters Continue Steady Rise ]. As we move forward, we must assume that the standards and techniques we are now using against wind and water damage will soon be obsolete. We must foresee a time when buildings will need to deal with much more intense and energetic weather.
Although there are many other ways to make cities more resilient, these three are my picks, and they will also reduce the contribution of CO2 and related greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. What would you suggest we do to deal with the un-holy trinity of Climate Change, Peak Oil and Global Population Growth.
Let me know by posting a comment on this blog.
Craig Applegath, Moderator ResilientCity.org
Craig is a founding member and moderator of ResilientCity.org, and an Architect and Principal at Cohos Evamy Integratedesign in Toronto. See his full biography.