Peak Oil, Peak Car, and Resilient Cities…

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Sure it was ‘only’ an aspirational vision, but way back in 2007, there was this idea that we might become the first carbon neutral capital in the world – big promises to be sure, but just how are we doing…?

I think it highly timely to begin to think about these things – although perhaps a little more broadly than simple carbon neutrality – especially given the raft of very important consultations that are underway:

Becoming carbon neutral is a nice enough goal, but it is rather a ‘sound-bite’ type of aspiration. It is open to all sorts of misinterpretation and misinformation, and really isn’t linked very strategically to a meaningful outcome – sure, we’d be setting an example of being ‘green’, which is kind of cool (and might attract a few more German tourists) – but it is all too easily read as being simply a goal for its own sake. The lack of Wellington’s carbon output won’t make a noticeable difference on global climate change patterns for example.

But what if we re-examined the driver for that vision, and went back to first principles in order to properly develop a meaningful aspirational vision. This is what Peter Newman, Tim Beatley, and Heather Boyer, the author’s of Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change argue, and it seems that the Wellington 2040 vision discussions will be taking this position as well (for at least one of the four planks of that vision):

What does green mean for Wellington? This is about building Wellington’s resilience for the future, and will influence the investments we make, how we build and create things, and how we go about our daily lives…  We need to find ways to do things more efficiently if we want to sustain our quality of life and support a strong economy.

Wellington has the potential to build on its significant green assets to make a green approach an opportunity. This can create economic advantage and will be a strong statement of the values that underpin the city’s strategic positioning.

It is about strategically future-proofing the very viability of the city, and this city in particular, for a world that will be vastly different to the one that we now enjoy. We’re probably all pretty familiar with the arguments and evidence for the impending crises of both global climate change and peak oil, and how the latter can be linked to the global financial crash (if not, you’ll have to do a bit of catch-up). So, what to do about it?

Resilient Cities posits four likely scenarios to these crises: devastating social and economic dislocation (collapse); a move toward cities of decentralised permaculture (Ruralised City); “Wealthy eco-enclaves surrounded by Mad Max suburbs” – the most probably solution as it is a ‘market-driven’ one (Divided City); and, cities configured around a new economy (Resilient City).

It is obvious which one of the scenarios that the authors plug for, describing it as the only one that is based on ‘hope’ rather than ‘fear’. The Resilient City includes the very ‘cities’ that we have all been advocating for: Renewable Energy City, Carbon Neutral City, Distributed City, Photosynthetic City, Eco-Efficient City, Place-Based City,  Sustainable Transport City. Green architecture, TOD, Gehl’s ‘walkability’, Naked Streets, bicycle oriented design, Mass Transit Networks – we also already know the strategies for achieving these cities. It simply becomes a matter of convincing those in charge (which is fine at the level of WCC ‘vision’, but when it comes to WCC/GWRC/NZTA action, it seems we revert back to the ‘dinosaur’ – outmoded and non-resilient development projects.

For example:

  • STOP building extra urban road capacity and urban scatter. The US and the world cannot afford to consume the resources it takes.
  • START building electric renewable cities with  much greater localism in the economy and infrastructure.

And:

The freeway is a failed technology

  • Cities adapt to the one-hour travel time budget no matter what infrastructure is provided
  • Freeways fail as public spaces
  • They are dinosaurs in a post Peak Oil world
  • Will save billions which is needed for the new economy.

Even if you are among those that don’t believe in climate change, the new economy must surely be seen as a positive one to aim for. It is demonstrably the way that key industries are heading, and why shouldn’t we be somewhere at the forefront to take advantage of this ‘wave’? It seems a worthwhile investment to make, even in a purely economic sense, and Wellington, with its small scale and educated demographic, could be well-positioned in this new environment. If we prepare the ground now, we can to attract the right people who will make the vision a self-fulfilling one (kind of like Richard Florida’s theories, only updated for a productive vision of smart ‘resilience’ rather than that indefinably vague vision of ‘creativity capital’). All we need is imagination and positive action, rather than unthinking conservatism.

Anyway, with the Basin Reserve project in mind, I’ll leave you with the Resilient Cities “Seven Elements for More Resilient Transport:

  1. A transit system that is faster than traffic in all major corridors.
  2. Viable centres along the corridors that are dense enough to service a good transport system
  3. Walkable areas and cycling facilitates that can mean easy access by non-motorised means, especially in these centres
  4. Services and connectivity that can guarantee access at most times of the day or night without time wasted
  5. Phasing out freeways and phasing in congestion taxes that are directed back into the funding of transit and walk/cycle facilities as well as traffic-calming measures
  6. Continual improvement of vehicle engines to ensure emissions, noise, and fuel consumption are reduced, especially a move to electric vehicles
  7. Regional and local governance that can enable visionary green transport plans and funding schemes to be introduced.

This presentation, by Peter Newman, indicates that Wellington is amongst the least resilient cities in the world (along with Australian and American cities). What are we going to do about it?


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