Peter Newman

Resilient Cities.  Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change
by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer
Island Press. 2008.

Review by Greg Paine

Cities are in constant change. But are they heading in the right direction? This book suggests they (we) are not. At the same time it remains positive – pointing, through reference to numerous examples of what cities around the world are doing, to a more viable urban form that we can – and must – create right now.

The choice of resilience as a connecting principle or objective is a good one. It is seductive in its imagery, clear in its aim, and familiar. The authors equate the idea of resilience in our personal lives with resilience within cities. As they say, it is about lasting, about making it through crises, about inner strength and strong physical constitution (and built form).

The notion is also of its time. Elisabeth Wynhausen for instance covers resilience in one of the series of books by University of Melbourne Press on “big themes” (and cautions against trying to institutionalise a concept that is essentially about adaption). And CSIRO research fellow Brian Walker writes about resilience thinking as a tool for making better decisions.

This is an age where we need to engage in yet more change in order to adapt to our real-time social, economic and environmental dilemmas. Resilience, with its broad connotations, is a handy catch-all way of pointing out the necessarily holistic nature of the task ahead. Critically, as the authors repeatedly advise, it is also about hope, not fear.

To support their notion, the authors canvass three other scenarios, already visible, for our urban future, concluding that each is deficient. The limitation of total collapse is obvious – and yet there are many examples of once viable cities and precincts that are now social and economic wastelands because they over-exploited or were unable to adapt.

The scenario of a reconstituted semi-ruralised city has strong advocates and some benefits but, the authors point out, is unlikely to be able to accommodate necessary population numbers, and by promoting low densities can increase transport costs and impinge on natural areas.

Finally, the resultant social trauma and unrest that comes from cities polarised between those with easy and affordable access to resources and those who do not means that the divided, and inevitably gated, city scenario is also to be avoided.

The need for urban areas to be resilient is not new. The anthropologist and early ecologist Gregory Bateson advocated flexibility when writing about sustainability and urbanism for New York city planners in 1970. What the authors do in this book however is to put the all-important flesh on the bones of the concept. Most of the book is about doing it. It is here that the experience of the authors, particularly Western Australia’s Peter Newman with many successful projects under his belt, both as theorists and practitioner comes to the fore.

The book is inspirational – full of great examples, collated into informative lists centred around themes related to the built environment, and transport. They are summarised below and serve as a useful touchstones for action.

Seven built environment elements of a resilient city

  • Urban areas powered by renewable energy – at all scales from the region to individual buildings
  • Every home, business and neighbourhood is carbon neutral
  • Power, water and waste systems small-scale and neighborhood-based, not large and centralised
  • Renewable energy (by photosynthesis) harnessed locally for food and fibre
  • A high proportion of energy and material needs provided from re-used waste (linear to closed loop systems)
  • Such actions contributing to building local economies and sense of place
  • Urban layouts allowing transport to be by walking and public mass transit, supplemented by electric vehicles

Seven transport elements of a resilient city

  • Public mass transit faster than vehicle traffic in all major urban corridors
  • Viable centres within these corridors, dense enough to support good mass public transit
  • Areas that allow easy non-motorised access (walking and cycling), especially within centres
  • Good public transit service and connectivity guaranteed at most times of day or night without wasted time
  • Freeways phased out, and congestion taxes phased in with revenue directed to funding these alternative modes
  • Vehicles engines continually improved to reduce noise, emissions and fuel consumption (especially a move to electric vehicles)
  • Regional and local governance structures that allow such visions and schemes to be implemented

But although lists are useful, they do not a whole make. Separated out, the components seem almost easy, and many are happening already – a point of the book is to show that all of this is eminently do-able. However, approached only individually they will not generate the necessary effect. The trick is to get each working interactively with the others. As the authors state, the challenge is to build cities that are, all the same time, green, transit-orientated and pedestrian-friendly.

Another useful aspect of the book is that the authors are not afraid to identify where there are deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Sustainable development is after all an on-going learning process. One particular area cited is that of neighbourhood re-configuration. Perhaps there is opportunity for the industry to lead the way here. And for readers of this website to offer their own insights, based on direct experience.

At the risk of being indulgent, a couple of quibbles. First is the initial orientation of the book to addressing the twin issues of peak oil and climate change. These problems are not to be denied (though there are still those who do). They are, however, the latest (albeit substantial) manifestation of a larger environmental and social crisis that we need to resolve.

The recipes that the authors offer are necessary not only because of what they describe as the double-whammy for our resource-intensive cities. Even if predictions about peak oil and climate change do not occur, the type of urban change described in the book is necessary for all sorts of other reasons, including simply the creation of more pleasant places to live.

The second is the book’s emphasis (though again not exclusive) on the public policy component of change. Public policy action is necessary of course – refer to the important inclusion of Ten strategic steps towards a resilient city (summarised below) as a way of ensuring the design scenarios described earlier happen.

But what is enlightening about the current state-of-play in sustainable development is that individuals and corporations are increasingly stepping up to fill the gap caused by reluctant (recalcitrant?) governments. A gap only too evident in the presence of too many examples of the debilitating urban scenarios of collapse, ruralisation, and division.

Nevertheless, the author’s recipes are wide-ranging enough to be of use by all – the public and the private sectors, and in partnerships. And by adopting such actions now industry will be well placed when these ideas do become mainstream public policy, as they must. So, readers, as agents of both personal and corporate change, let’s not wait. Over to you. Read the book and get moving!

  • Ten strategic steps towards a resilient city:
  1. Set the vision, prepare an implementation strategy
  2. Learn on the job
  3. Target public buildings, parking, and road structures as green icons
  4. Build transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented and green-orientated developments together
  5. Make the transition to resilient infrastructure step by step
  6. Use prices to drive change where possible
  7. Rethink rural regions to allow reduced oil dependency
  8. Regenerate households and neighbourhoods
  9. Facilitate localism
  10. Use approvals to regulate for the post-oil transition.
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