Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience planning 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 sprawl.
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 vitality.
Focus on water use efficiency and conservation
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 availability.
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.