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