UPDATE: Peter Newman’s Distinguished Speaker Series talk was broadcast on KPFT 90.1 in Houston on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 8:00pm on the Progressive Forum. Newman’s talk is the second hour of the show available as an mp3.
UPDATE:Video of Peter Newman’s talk is now posted on Youtube and at the bottom of this post.
Peak oil, climate change, and the current recession have created an opportunity to transform our urban areas into resilient cities, according to author Peter Newman, who spoke on January 22 as part of Houston Tomorrow’s Distinguished Speaker Series. About 135 people attended the talk, which centered around Newman’s new book Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, coauthored with Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer. Beatley will speak in Houston on Monday, February 16, at Rice University’s “Houston: The Future of the City” series. His talk is free and open to the public.
According to Newman, the world has effectively reached its peak oil production, meaning that we cannot increase production to meet increased demand. Simultaneously, climate change threatens cities and regions worldwide through changing rainfall patterns, more intense storms, and rising sea levels. Finally, Newman attributed the subprime mortgage crisis to auto dependency and the belief on the part of lending institutions that car-based growth would always happen. He said the crisis has hit the suburbs the hardest. As a result of these three crises, Newman said we must transform our oil-based cities into sustainable, energy-efficient models.
Newman discussed four potential urban models that could result from these crises: collapse, in which cities are abandoned; ruralized cities, which are primarily agricultural but sprawl extensively; divided cities, which consist of high-income “eco-enclaves” surrounded by lawless suburbs, and resilient cities that combine technology and sustainability to create widespread economic opportunities. The first three, he said, are based on fear, but resilient cities are based on hope for the future.
To create resilient cities, Newman said, we must stop building roads and encouraging urban “scatter” - areas far from jobs and services and entirely dependent on cars - and start building dense cities centered around renewable electricity and transit systems. He acknowledged that some cities, including Houston, will have to work harder than others. According to several graphs he provided, Houston is one of the least dense and most energy-intensive cities in the entire world.
The problem, Newman said, is that traffic engineers and city planners treat traffic like water, assuming that its volume never changes and that it has to go somewhere. Under this assumption, building more roads will reduce congestion while removing roads will increase congestion. However, this mindset ignores the effects of alternative transportation methods and smart urban design. Newman provided a graph showing that road construction does nothing to reduce congestion, and he pointed to several examples of cities that have torn down existing freeways and reduced traffic simultaneously. Seoul, South Korea was a particularly striking example: decades after paving over a sacred river through the middle of the city, local officials tore down the freeway and created a beautiful public parkland on both sides of the river. If a city is designed well, said Newman, traffic can simply vanish.
Newman identified seven strategies to use in order to reduce auto dependency and create resilient cities:
Transit-oriented developments (TODs) combine density and mass transit to significantly reduce vehicle use. Families currently living in TODs drive 50 percent less and own fewer cars, saving 20 percent of their income every year.
Pedestrian-oriented developments and bike-oriented developments improve walkability, reduce air pollution, and encourage citizens to live healthier lifestyles.
Green-oriented developments ensure that every new building and development meets strict sustainability criteria. These buildings recycle water, lower energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the effects of the urban heat island.
Electric vehicles reduce emissions and can even store renewable energy. Israel, Denmark, and three cities in Australia are working on this technology.
Eco-villages on the fringes of cities would be mostly self-sufficient, with their own water, power, and sewer infrastructure, and would provide residents with a small-town experience.
Travel demand management, including teleconferencing, reduces the need for travel and consequently lowers energy use.
Peter Newman’s PowerPoint presentation (pdf, 8.2 mb)
Peter Newman at Houston Tomorrow Distinguished Speaker Series - Part 1 of 2
Peter Newman at Houston Tomorrow Distinguished Speaker Series - Part 2 of 2