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Resilient Cities – planners post their visions

Resilient Cities – planners post their visions

A couple weeks ago, I received a phone call from a woman in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She wanted to know if the Department could use a short piece from something I had written in a set of guidelines they were producing.

The guidelines, she explained, were for other levels of government and institutions to use when thinking about how to make communities more resilient. It was then that it dawned on me just how far this notion of resilient communities has gone and how broad is the depth of interest in it.

In the community sector, the term ‘resilient communities’ is heard among those active in the relatively new Transtions Initiative groups ( There, it summarises a range of ideas on how societies can adapt to the synchronous impact of peak oil and climate change.

Transition Initiatives, however, are far from the only ones using the term. That was reinforced for me while in Gleebooks one day. There, while perusing the environment titles shelves, I came across a paperback, the collective work of three authors: Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in WA, author of Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems (2007, Island Press) — Peter Newman was once the NSW Sustainabilty Commissioner — Timothy Beatley, professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia and author of Green Urbanism Down Under (2008, Island Press); and Heather Boyer, senior editor at Island Press and Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. None of these are intellectual light weights and what they say must be taken with more than a grain of seriousness.

And the book — it was called Resilient Cities – responding to peak oil and climate change.

Necessary reading

This is exactly the sort of book Transition Initiative people and their fellow travelers, permaculturists, should take the time to read. The synchronous peak oil-climate change challenge to our resource intensive cities is analysed, as is the nature of the climatic and energy threats. After creating a typology of four urban future scenarios, the authors go on to describe visions and hopes for sustainable cities. What is good is that there are many examples of positive responses drawn from Australia

What is also of interest, to those active in the permaculture and Transition movements, anyway, is the revelation of how permaculture is perceived by planning and design professionals working in education and sustainability practice. The authors certainly take permaculture seriously, however they remain critical of its approach to an oil-depleted and climatically-altered future for our cities.

Why this is important is because these people are influential. They frame thinking about permaculture and affect how others perceive it. Permaculture, Transitions and related approaches to sustainable development at the community level all circulate in the public marketplace for ideas, something that makes how they are perceived critical to their future opportunities.

This is revealed in the chapter describing four scenarios for the future of cities. Drawing up scenarios is a way of thinking about the future that has now been in use for decades and has been adopted by a range of organisations in society, including business. One of its advantages is that it engages the imagination to envision alternative futures based on current and likely events and trends, as well as unexpected events, and allows you to step out along exploratory pathways of the imagination in considering how things could unfold from different starting conditions and how they might be responded to.

What becomes clear as you read the book is that the authors are familiar with the different scenarios, including those of Richard Heinberg and David Holmgren. Heinberg, an American, toured with David Holmgren several years ago to alert Australian audiences to the challenge offered by the peaking of global oil supplies. The authors have done their research and, to that, they add their extensive and more than credible knowledge developed of years of experience.

The four urban scenarios the authors explore are: collapse, ruralisation, the divided city and the resilient city. Transition and permaculture interests might wonder why the ruralised city and the resilient city are treated separately, for surely they are the same? Hasn’t permaculture’s Bill Mollison and David Holmgren painted them as such? Well, it turns out that they are not the same and that, for the authors, the resilient city is the preferred future.


The collapse scenario is familiar — the synchronous impact of peak oil and climate change combine to create a descending spiral… price rises for fuels and food hit the less affluent hardest… markets change as household funds are diverted from discretionary spending into buying increasingly costly basic needs, businesses collapse, jobs disappear, family and mortgage stress increases, family homelessness (already a phenomenon in Australia in the current recession) becomes more common and, as a result of this trend, a climate of fear and panic descends.

This is likely be be felt more keenly, the authors say, in the newer, outer ring of suburbs that have grown up on the assumption of a continuous supply of relatively cheap vehicle fuel. Out there, car reliance is a basic given, public transport is not particularly effective at moving people to and from workplace, commercial centre and shopping mall and walking and cycling simply are not options due to distance and lack of safe cycling facilities. These distant suburbs are vulnerable suburbs in a situation of energy and climate stress.

In a climate of despair, family and community stress, the fear that sets in starts to manifest as panic. Opportunities for adaptive responses collapse as the resilience of civil society goes into freefall. Those who remain in the vulnerable suburbs live on whatever meagre resources a society tumbling into recession can provide. Others move on.

We can imagine this. Just as in the Great Depression of the 1930s, shanty towns and tent cities appear. And just as in those years, this triggers social resistance by the more affluent, the employed middle class and environmentalists who press the authorities to remove the squatter camps from their view and off of nature reserves and national parks. Quickly, a social fracture becomes a social chasm.

According to the authors, this is the type of future that stems from the denial of peak oil and climate change. It is as Thomas Homer Dixon wrote in The Upside of Down — that it is when resource, environmental and social stresses combine in synchrounous failure that social and personal support systems start to fail.

This is a bleak future that has a certain appeal to the apocalyptic mindset. That mindset is more prevalent in the US than in Australia and New Zealand, however it is being talked up here, too, the authors suggest.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (co-originators of the permaculture design concept) and Ted Trained (a UNSW lecturer who has written extensively on future scenarios and sustainability) have warned that our present society may find it difficult to adapt to the potential impact of peak oil and climate change, especially if their impacts start to be felt at the same time.

None, however, say that we should accept collapse in the way that some peak oilers (those who see peak oil as, primarily, a collapse scenario) do with what the authors say is their often overstated rhetoric. They say that in Energy Bulletin, edition 6.6.04, David Holmgren is reported as portraying such a doomsayer vision of a peak oil future.

The divided city

This model is one unconducive to achieving urban sustainability. It is of a model the city divided along the lines of social class, with wealth a determinant of sustainable living.

It was years ago that I first found this model described in a novel. That book portrayed American society of what was the near future, a society in which the less affluent masses lived in socially and environmentally decaying suburbs in which there was limited opportunity. The wealthier occupied what we would now call ecovillages – in effect, they were gated communities in which the residents enjoyed the benefits of renewable energy systems and other technologies of sustainability, and the security that comes from having guards on the gates.

We already have gated communities, the most effective barrier of entry to which is less the guards than the cost of the real estate. The products of social fear and exclusivity, they are increasingly criticised by planners. They sometimes have regulations that in effect become a form of social control. In this, they have some parallel with some ecovillages in which aspects of behaviour may be constrained, such as the colours you can paint your house, how you can make use of your land, what types of domestic animals you cannot keep, the discouragement of informal, uninvited visitation to the ecovillage and so on. For the most part, such restrictions are based on environmental considerations, and while this is both reasonable and responsible, it is often only one particular take on people and their environment. Nonetheless, it is this that distinguishes authentic ecovillages from gated communities.

The divided city is one in which this social divide is also an opportunity divide. It is not a model for sustainable urbanisation.

The ruralised city

Those in permaculture and some in the Transition Initiative movement will be familiar with the ruralised city model. The scenario goes like this — as climate change and peak oil make their combined impacts felt, a demographic and agricultural renaissance takes place in the suburbs of Australian cities as they are transformed into places where food, fuelwood and fibre are produced.

This is an evolutionary scenario in that it takes place over time. It is based on a household-led renaissance in which suburban houses become multigenerational, extended family locales amid the new, urban fields of food and fuel. It is a vision very much along the lines of conventional permaculture thinking and is even one that people have here and there sought to give birth to where they have removed fences between adjoining properties and shared resources. Ted Trainer, in particular, has been a strong advocate of this vision of the city.

Those instances, few they might be, where neighbours remove fences and share resources have been exemplary, however they have proven largely unreplicable, not because the idea is unworkable but because there has been no broad motivation and because urban populations are often mobile populations, a situation in which linking adjoining properties and sharing space is unlikely to endure.

Elsewhere, the authors acknowledge that urban agriculture is a good thing, however they agree that David Holmgren’s vision of the rurualised city is a flawed one. Their objections follow.

Urban sprawl

David’s model encourages urban sprawl. Its focus on the detached suburban dwelling would see the further spread of the suburbs and the further loss of our urban fringe farmlands, already threatened in Sydney and Melbourne by urban development (52 percent of Sydney’s existing market gardens and small scale farming enterprises are in the state government’s urban growth areas).

The model thus threatens the resiliency of the cities.

The individualisation of the problems

A focus on the ruralised city and the suburban house as the centre of adaptation to peak oil and climate change individualises both the problem and the solution. The authors assert that individual, uncoordinated approaches to sustainable living will not achieve desirable outcomes. What is needed are region-wide solutions, not just the one-offs that rely on the individual initiatives of householders. Those exemplary initiatives need to be scaled-up and made affordable and accessible to thousands.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, of the International Society for Ecology and Culture and a leading figure promoting community-based, urban food systems in the UK, has warned against the individualisation of responsibility for our environmental problems and against the placing of responsblity solely upon householders and individuals. This, she suggests, allows industry, government and institutions to avoid their share of responsibility.

Whatsmore, the individualised approach is socially inequitable, being dependent upon home ownership and access to sufficient affluence to fund the changes. The continuity of that affluence into a period marked by economic downturn stemming from peak oil and climate change must be doubted. I realised that this really is a factor when friends explained to me that they could not afford to install solar hot water, although they would have preferred to. People need funds for discretionary spending, even when government rebates are available, to install solar water heating, photovotaic panels and the rest of the energy and water efficiency domestic tech kit. Maybe this is why we see them in mainly better off, more affluent suburbs.

The authors say that cities are collective entities… that is, they are more than individualised houses and the nuclear or other family types inhabiting them. Thus, common solutions are what is needed, rather than the one-off initiatives of the environmentally committed. This might have been what social entrepreneur Mitra Aadron was getting at when, some time ago, he wrote on the Oceania permaculture email discussion list that sustainability initiatives have been one-off affairs and that a more innovative approach was called for to scale-up access to the technologies of sustainability for householders. His solution was the bulk-buying of the technology of household sustainability.

A bleak future for parts of the city

The ruralised city model offers a bleak future for those parts of the city unable to grow food and fuelwood, harvest and store water and process their wastes

Presumably, this would include the denser, inner urban ring of urbanisation close to the city centres. Yet, it is just this density of population that commentators say is needed to make public transport economically viable, and thus reliable and efficient, and to make those places into walkable and cyclable suburbs.

This is a critique of the ruralised city model that has been offered by others. They say it has little to offer medium density residents at a time when more and more people are attracted to apartment living or when that is the only type of dwelling that is affordable… such as with first home buyers.

The sustainable city

This is the authors’ preferred model. It is eco-efficient in regard to energy and water, has effective public transportation that includes walkable and bicycleable suburbs, viable local economies, produces much of its own fresh foods – especially in the ecovillages located in what are presently the newer, outer suburbs vulnerable to peak oil and climate change, and its infrastructure is carbon neutral.

If I am allowed to add my bit, I would say that the sustainable city is also the wired city in which teleworking and teleconferencing replace a portion of personal, workplace-related travel. High-speed, affordable bandwidth makes this possible, as do the technologies of the mobile Internet.

It is also the food city, with urban fringe market gardens, orchards, poultry farms and mushroomeries protected by zoning legislation from being overrun by urban development. Aquaponic installations exist as small businesses within the suburbs as do community gardens for their food and social values.

The path

So, how do we avoid the divided city and collapse and get to the sustainable city?

You will have to read the book for the detail in which the authors describe ten strategic steps towards sustainability. They include among these the installation of sustainable infrastructure, the regeneration of households and neighbourhoods, the facilitation of localisation and the use of government approvals to regulate for a post-oil transition.

For those community associations pursuing the Transition approach to a sustainable future, Resilient Cities – responding to peak oil and climate change will help to bring rigour and credibility to their argument. At the same time it will challenge them, especially in its constructive criticism of David Holmgren’s scenario of suburban adaptation. This might not be received well in some permaculture circles as self-criticism has never been a strong feature in permaculture and reaction to outside critical comment has sometimes been quite defensive rather than considerate.

Nonetheless, as the Transition Towns/Transition Initiatives movement makes its presence felt more keenly in the social marketplace for ideas, criticism will become more frequent and more pointed. Reading this book in an open frame of mind will help such groups revisit their core beliefs and ask themselves questions about their validity.

Publisher’s information

Newman P, Beatley T, Boyer H; 2009; Resilient Cities – responding to peak oil and climate change; Island Press, Washington DC.

Reviewed by Russ Grayson, June 2009

Comments (2)

  • Kelley Roy
    August 3, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Another good book to check out is Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. You can check out the website here and buy the book here

    Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty is the first major guidebook on peak oil and global warming for people who work with and for local governments in the United States and Canada. It provides a sober look at how these phenomena are quickly creating new uncertainties and vulnerabilities for cities of all sizes, reviews how “early-actor” cities are already responding to peak oil, and recommends what steps local decision-makers can take to begin addressing these unprecedented challenges. Post Carbon Cities fills an important gap in the resources currently available to local government decision-makers on planning for the changing global energy and climate context of the 21st century.

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