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Choosing What Our Cities Will Look Like in a World Without Oil
Sarah Kuck, 13 Jan 09
The covering of the Cheonggyecheon River and the building of an elevated freeway over it in the 1970s represented the height of social progress in Seoul, Korea at the time.This thought, however, was greatly reconsidered thirty years later after the city had become noisy and congested.

As we draw nearer to reaching the point of Peak Oil, it benefits us to imagine what our cities will look like in a world without oil. Does this conjure up images of cities turned into urban farms just to produce enough food for us all? Do we devote all our energy to growing, bartering and trading the food we grow? Or will the city become divided, with the wealthy moving to the center while higher costs of living force lower-income families to the outer-ring suburbs, where access to goods, services and transport will be limited?

If we start now, we can choose what we want our cities to look like in the future. We can make them the resilient, sustainable centers of culture, justice, art and creativity that we hope they will become.

Author and Professor Peter Newman is asking us to imagine and then get to work building these urban centers. His book and talk, both titled Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, ask audiences to honestly look at what will happen to our cities when we reach Peak Oil. During his 90 minute presentation last night at Seattle's City Hall, Newman explained to the full house how peak oil will soon change reality as we know it; and how if we choose to make it so, we can take this challenge as our opportunity to create a functional, just and sustainable world.

Picturing a future where we do nothing resulted in some frightening scenarios: ones where we are barely getting by and injustice is running rampant. But, as Newman explained, picturing a future in which we respond to the challenge by building resilient cities results in images of a flexible and supportive, flourishing society.

So, in 2001, under the direction of Seoul's Mayor Lee Myung-bak, a plan was developed to tear down the freeway and to restore the river. The project was completed in 2005
In order to build the new resilient city of the future, Newman said that “we need to stop building extra urban road capacity and urban scatter; we need to start building electric renewable cities with much greater localism in the economy and infrastructure.”

“We need both at the same time," Newman said. "Or they will undermine what we need to do together.”

Here are a few exceptional points, summarized from Newman's worldchanging presentation:

End Agglomeration Diseconomies
The freeway is a failed technology. Freeways don’t actually ultimately help people get where they want to go any faster; they simply scatter people and economies. Freeways fail as public spaces; as infrastructure, they are dinosaurs. Their impact on cities is not good for economics or people. So we should stop building them. We should instead organize and advocate for rail systems so we can reclaim and rehabilitate our open spaces. Car-dependent cities can begin to reclaim freeways by investing in rail transit and building up local economies around station hubs.

Density, Walkability and Affordable Housing
High quality, high rise developments in the city will increase walkability, and decrease the number of trips taken by car. These developments will function best if developers work in partnership with land use planners. To end the division and disagreements that high density development creates, we have to require all developments to allot 15 percent of space to social housing, and require 5 percent of the value of a development to go toward social infrastructure, like landscaped open-to-the-public space, public art, community centers, schools, arts facilities.

Complete Streets, Smart Grids
Cars won’t go away completely, even though the oil we currently use to power them will. The cars of the future will run on alternatively produced electricity. We can link the extra energy produced from solar and wind production systems to the batteries in our cars with Smart Grids. These energy linking systems help buildings and transportation power each other. (Read more about Smart Grids on Worldchanging here and here.)

Eco-villages colonizing the fringe
Build eco-villages on the outskirts of the urban ring. Built with their own water, power and sewage systems, we can turn the crumbling suburbs into self sustaining eco-communities of the future.

What We Need to do Now
Newman gave vibrant examples of each of these ideas happening in cities all over the world, from Seoul to London, Copenhagen to Vancouver, B.C., these cities are proving that this is possible. All we need now, said Newman, is imagination, post oil strategies, partnerships and demonstrations, and above all HOPE!

Let’s get to work.

Image credits: Life in Korea: Scenes in Korean, Flickr/StephaneR
Caption Credits: Streetswiki.

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New Yorkers should check out Peter Newman's talk at NYU on January 26th (link).

Posted by: sustainable_streets on 14 Jan 09

Why does everyone's vision for the future consist of urban high-rises where all of one's needs can be met within that one building or at least within walking distance. I don't want to live in an environment like that, stacked up with a thousand other people. I can imagine going stir-crazy in a very short time if my only access to green space is a rooftop garden or small urban park that I have to share with everyone else.

I place a high value on privacy and solitude, I enjoy being alone. My dream is to someday own 50 or 100 acres where I can live and enjoy my little piece of paradise without traffic or neighbors to disturb my peace.

I agree that rail is probably the most efficient way to move goods or for one's daily commute to the office, but there's a lot of other types of travel that would not be practical via rail. Freeways are often the fastest route from point A to point B and it's not practical to do away with them altogether.

Posted by: Jennifer on 14 Jan 09

Jennifer, I think the idea is to set up density in a way that gives back to the community and makes it feel like the whole city is your home by creating big public green spaces, community centers, schools, tool libraries, public kitchens and other spaces.

As for freeways, I don't think Newman was saying stop maintaining all freeways -- just to stop constructing new ones. AND to take down the ones that are no longer serving us, costing the city time and money.

Posted by: Sarah on 14 Jan 09

I agree with Jennifer.
The whole idea that the central city is some sort of oasis from the effects of a collapsing economy is badly misinformed.

If one wishes to learn what REALLY happens to center city residents when an economy collapses I suggest reading an actual historical account such as, "Harvest of Despair, Life in Reich's Kommisariat Ukraine", which details life in the Ukraine after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Additionally, there are accounts of what happened in Argentina after the currency collapse in that country.

Bottom line, a city becomes a complete death trap very quickly after any serious disruption of economic activity and is just about the very LAST place any sane person wants to be.

Posted by: Fred on 15 Jan 09

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