Urban Resilience for Dummies, Part 2: Failing the Milk Test


Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience
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

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

Focus on water use efficiency and

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

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


Before the Flood: Community Resilience Notebook


This weekend I volunteered to warn shopkeepers and
officials in my San Francisco suburb about dangerous urban flooding potential during
the next week.

Every Friday noon in San Anselmo the “flood siren”
(not disaster siren, mind) is tested. Within fifteen minutes of the last time
it blasted for real in 2005, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, three to four
feet of water was soon gushing down the main street (see photo above) into
homes and businesses. People here are acutely sensitive to heavy rain and the level
of the town’s creek, since they are still trying to rise up from that cold watery blow
four years ago.

Up and down the California coast, metro areas
including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are experiencing a series of El
Nino-generated Pacific storms. Further inland, Phoenix will also take a big
hit. The forecasted 6-10 inches of rain over the next days will almost
certainly bring localized flooding and mudslides. Ocean storm swells will reach
20-30 feet
on some parts of the coast by Thursday, lashing roads,
infrastructure and housing. (Update Jan. 22: the storms this week luckily did not flood San Anselmo, but did cause heavy rains, some flooding and infrastructure damage throughout the state and Arizona, while also reducing the region’s drought).


NOAA 5-day precipitation forecast from 1/16/10: small purple circles in California represent areas expected to receive 8+ inches.

How much of this weather and its impacts can be
directly attributed to global climate change, I will not venture. The coastal
and tidal flooding that is expected in California, however, will be one of the hallmarks of a changing climate. Another effect will be drought—which
California and the Southwest have been experiencing for three years–the flip
side of climate change’s growing precipitation impacts. Coastal
and desert urban areas in particular need to steel themselves for such a schizophrenic

Leaving things up to “officials” to figure out disaster
plans is not recommended; true community resilience will require research, networking
and knowledge sharing within and outside one’s normal sphere. In my case, I think
I was able to plug a few vital holes that may have been missed.

Most store owners in San
Anselmo (pop. 12,000) that I spoke with were savvy about imminent flood danger.
Based on their experience with the New Year’s Eve flood of 2005, a few
shopkeepers had excellent information and resources: they referred me to online
creek-level readings (“anything over ten feet and I’m out of here,” one man said), and email alerts that can be sent to email or phones from Nixle.com, a national information mass customization service that localizes updates on disasters, road
closures and crime.

Nixle, for instance, has newly
updated postings
from the San Anselmo Police Department about potential hazards
for flooding and safeguards.
There’s even a local AM radio (1610) station dedicated to disaster updates for
the area.

But none of that seemed to be
enough to really prepare people. One friend, a council member from the
neighboring town that was also flooded in 2005, did not know about the severity
of the forecast weather when I chanced to run into him at a musical performance
over the weekend. He had me send him the forecast links from NOAA
showing him exactly how much precip is expected to fall.
He emailed back, “We’re trying to get our flood plain residents to batten down
the hatches. This should help.”

Other small business owners
that I spoke to were new to town, including immigrants. Unlike long-time
business owners who told me they were warned by the police (or that had vivid mud-damaged
inventory and moldy wallboard memories), the new shopkeepers knew almost nothing
about flooding dangers or where to get the free sandbags.


Those who were around in
December 30, 2005, have learned that floodgates (above, white board) for each business offers the
best protection. In actuality, these are just rails installed on each side of entrance
door where a piece of plywood can be inserted as a barrier against the torrents
of water can come crashing against and under the front shop door (usually
glass). Gates work even better than sandbags, but sandbags will prevent the
glass doors from being smashed open.

The town and surrounding
communities, even the federal government, tried to take some larger-scale policy
actions after the 2005 flood, which caused almost $100 million in property damages
county-wide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed a new local flood
risk map
based on the 2005 event, and insurers offered policies that residents within
the areas were urged to purchase.
An extensive engineering study of the region’s watershed is being made,
a $125-per-property flood fee narrowly passed a controversial vote, while creek debris clean-ups have become popular all-age volunteer events each fall before
the winter rainy season arrives.

Some houses have been rebuilt
and raised above the flood-prone region along San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek. This
normally placid creek empties seven miles later into San Francisco Bay. High bay
tides back the creek up so that it can’t empty into the bay quickly.


San Anselmo/ Corte Madera Creek Watershed: San Anselmo is in center, San Francisco Bay, on right

Unfortunately, it doesn’t
take much time for San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek (watershed in brown above) to back up from San Francisco
Bay and rise in the Marin communities lining its flood plain, since it is
surrounded by steep canyons that channel rainfall off nearby hills. Asphalt
parking lots, impermeable pavement and poorly planned development have also
increased the speed by which rainwater runs off into the creek. For instance,
when I checked creek levels online Sunday the 17th, the creek was 2.9 feet, but after heavy rains Sunday night
and Monday morning the creek was already over 6 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet (update 1/20/10: after heavy rain, the creek level went from 4 feet to 10 feet in matter of five hours, before receeding slightly) .

The irony of California’s
winter storms is that they bring needed water to reservoirs and mountain snowpack,
promising to reduce or temporarily end the region’s ongoing drought, which has
been costing the agriculture industry and some cities hundreds of millions in
lost revenue and in water purchases. Marin County last year was the first in
the Bay Area
to approve desalination from San Francisco Bay water, despite energy and marine environmental impacts along with a hefty $100
million-plus price tag

Not surprisingly, the state’s residents have a
love-hate relationship with their winter weather. To make the affair even more
volatile, climate change may be swinging the status from drought to flood in a
matter of a few weeks.

Indeed, California’s coastal
metros (along with the Gulf Coast, including Florida and New Orleans) may be
the first litmus test for how to adapt to the unpredictable excesses and
scarcities of a changing climate.

 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.