I just attended a hopeful presentation by Australian urbanist Peter Newman on his concept of Resilient Cities. We're at the toxic intersection of several trends: peak oil, global warming, and scattered, car-dependent residential growth fueled lately by subprime mortgages. According to data he presented from the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy (Nov. 2008), "the underlying trend in the price of oil is 6 percent growth per year." Combine this with the IEA's recent World Energy Outlook that says the "natural annual rate of [oil output] decline is 9.1 percent from 2009" and it becomes pretty obvious that massive changes in our energy and transportation infrastructure and technology are around the bend.
Newman lists four courses the modern city may take:
Collapse: It's happened before and could happen again. Newman cited the ancient examples of Ephesus and Babylon, and while total abandonment seems less likely in today's world, a tour through Rust Belt American cities such as Gary, Indiana, should suffice as a warning of potential decay.
Ruralization: Food production moves to the cities somewhat, as happened in Havana when the Soviet Union cut off energy supplies. Total ruralization with every apartment complex growing its own food seems unlikely because it would disrupt the whole logic of the city as an opportunity factory.
Division: Wealthy eco-enclaves will coexist with and be surrounded by Mad Max suburbs. This is a highly probable outcome if market forces play out sans smart urban and regional planning. This pattern is already prominent in the developing world where gated communities abut slums.
Resilience: Combining all the dream elements of renewable energy, distributed systems, smart grids, carbon neutrality, and sustainable transport, resilient cities are basically environmental utopias--only impossible if viewed as overnight projects. Alone among these four types, resilient cities are founded on hope not fear, though division, ruralization, and collapsing neighborhoods may all accompany the transition to resilience.
Newman focused today on the fact that land use follows transport, thus illustrating the importance of public transit-oriented development. His sense is that the stimulus and transportation initiatives of the Obama era must move dollars from freeway construction to sustainable options. Spending $100 million per mile on a freeway, as Houston did, seems like Stone Age economics at this point.
I suggested to him that transition to high gas mileage electric vehicles (100+ mpg) might forestall investment in public transit, but he seemed optimistic that, given the bigger picture of climate change pressuring the economy, plug-in cars and vehicle-to-grid technologies will prove a win-win situation. Let's hope he's right.