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Resilience and Ruggedness: Why Faster, Bigger and More Complex May Be Better
Alex Steffen, 10 Apr 10

This started as a few notes, became a rant, then tripped over some ideas which will be more fully articulated in coming work. Rough writing: read at your own risk. There are some obvious problems with this as a piece I don't have time to fix. Intelligent, engaged, constructive feedback welcome.

There's a really cool event happening in Berkeley today, Design 4 Resilience: Thriving in an Uncertain World. It's an open space, unconferency sort of show, not unlike the miniconference we held last weekend on how to rebuild Seattle as a carbon neutral. All sorts of interesting folks are participating, including ally Jerry Michalski, Jean Russell, Sarah Kennon of Method, Stephanie Smith, Neal Gorenflo and a bunch of others. If I were in the Bay Area today, I'd be there.

I am really glad there are people revving up the conversation about resilience: it's an essential debate to have. That said, some things about the way resilience is being defined, framed and envisioned in some of discussions strike me as veering from the helpful. While I don't have time to offer a full-blown set of alternative solution-approaches, I thought a few ideas might be useful:

1. Defining the scope of resilience is critical.

One of the defining characteristics of post-industrial capitalism is that it hides its backstories. Because branding is so important, and consumer choices are made often on completely intangible perceptions, most of messy destruction and systemic oppression that support our lives happens in places obscured from our view. This is why it's so critical we work on making visible the invisible, doing supply chain transparency and backstory activism. Sunlight does wonders for sustainability.

But there's a second side to this coin that we rarely address: because so much of the harm we do indirectly is hidden from us, we have really profoundly distorted ideas of how our lives work.

A great many Americans are completely oblivious to the backstory destruction their life choices cause, and even many of us who are thinking actively about making a better future fall frequently into the trap of thinking that if we can fix what's at hand, we'll find a path to sustainability. I think this privatization of responsibility is intentional, but whatever it's source, the effect on resilience thinking has been profound.

The things closest to hand are food and household goods, our homes and neighborhoods. Looking at these things, we often try to feel our way to a relationship with them that seems to balance with the needs of the planet. Let's grow food, we think, slimming our connection to destructive agrobusiness; let's reduce our consumption, recycle more, buy green, make things out of reclaimed materials and in general, slimming our connection to unsustainable industries; let's remodel with nontoxic materials, maybe invest in some solar panels; let's try to turn more of our communities back into green space, maybe even fight new development.

All of this makes sense, if all we can see is what's at hand.

The problem is, none of this actually takes us very far towards genuine sustainability as a society. The car test is my personal window on this. A great many people who have passionately embraced green living still own cars. That's fine: I'm not here to pass judgment, not my point. My point is, given that owning and driving a car is the single most climate-destructive thing most of us do, our blindspots for our vehicles are telling. When people spend serious portions of their life energy attempting to live sustainably and don't challenge the assumption that they must live an auto-dependent life, something is askew in the thought process.

It goes far beyond car ownership, of course: the vast majority of the damage we leave in our wake is not damage that can be changed by tweaking things we can easily lay our hands on. Most of it is far upstream, and can only be changed through societal engagement in policy and systems design. Some of it can only be changed through global agreements. Even the things we can lay our hands on are often just not amenable to change at an individual level: most of us would not go without refrigeration, but buy the best refrigerator you can find at any price and you still have a piece of unsustainable machinery on your hands. It's just pretty much impossible to be sustainable on your own.

2) Sustainability needs to be a systemic effort.

See, I'm more and more convinced that the idea we as individuals, or little pocket communities, or small towns can lead the way to sustainability on our own is sort of delusional and unworthy of ourselves. Certainly the idea that some people can disconnect and live happy transition lives while society crashes around them betrays a profound misreading of history: all those other un-transitioned people aren't going to just go away and leave us to our straw-bale buildings and arugula patches.

If we want to live sustainable lives, we need to make sustainable places, and in the modern world, where metropolises drive the economy and culture, that means making sustainable cities. We may not be able to do that everywhere in the time we have; but the idea that we can thrive without doing it many places is delusional. Fail to make cities resilient at a broad scale, and we're talking the breakdown of social order, which means all other plans are pointless.

In order to make cities sustainable, we need to understand the proper scale of urban sustainability, which is regional. The same mistaken vision that leads us to focus on problems close at hand often leads us to define the solutions as small-scale and immediately local. This, again, betrays the fact that larger systems are often hidden from our view.

What I mean is this: a great many North American green types, if handed a box of crayons and asked to draw a sustainable life, would sketch out something that looks much like a 19th century farm, but with telephone wires and easy access to a commercial center. Meaning, they'd interpret sustainability at an atomized individual household level: can this household grow its own food, harvest its own rainwater, what have you. It'd be a vision influenced by thoughts of self-sufficient, combined with a very suburban sense of having access to what cities make, without being in a city.

Reality, though, is that low-density suburban sprawl is profoundly unsustainable, and no amount of gardening will make it work. For a whole variety of reasons, when you look at the whole system much denser communities are more sustainable.

I'd argue that the proper scale at which to design resilience is not at the household, but in a mesh of urban districts (incorporating energy innovations and transit-orientation) and regional watersheds, foodsheds, transportation systems and energy sources. (If the wrongly-idealized vision of sustainability is the suburban farmhouse, this might be something more like a high-tech Italian hill city: dense and surrounded by forests, fields, wildlands and windfarms.)

We want density, we want a lot more density. Compact cities are the key to sustainable transportation. Suffused with technology, they're they key to post-ownership prosperity. Urban infrastructure is used by more people, making it more efficient to operate and more cost-effective to redevelop along new lines. If we're talking primarily about ecological footprints, sustainable farm systems are more important than urban farmland: better lots of density surrounded by real farms, than lots of land covered with homes and bits of garden (of course, we can have density that includes some gardening as well -- I plan to go water some sprouts right after I finish this -- as long as we don't mistake lawns for an essential biological service). In every way I know of, cities can be made more far sustainable than sprawl... including sprawl that's surrounded by trees, powered with solar and lived in by well-meaning people. Cities are able to provide prosperity for more people at a fraction of the impact, if rebuilt along bright green lines

In fact, though we're a long way from doing it, cities can be designed to be essentially zero-footprint; many of the steps needed will also dramatically increase their resilience to ecological and economic shocks, and reduce their dependence on global resource and energy flows (a damn good thing as we enter the age of peak everything). But there's more to cities than they harm they can prevent. Great cities also provide dynamic cultural energy and the capacity for rapid change. I think we're going to need both.

3) Ruggedness is something we don't talk enough about.

Because sustainability thinking has largely grown out the environmental movement, there's still a mental dichotomy between natural and fallen; that is, we often think the point is to save the green places, save virgin nature, and that anything that has been incorporated into the human world is lost, and of secondary importance at best.

One problem with this thinking is the entire planet and every corner and crevice within it has now been incorporated into the human world. Wild, "virgin" nature doesn't exist anymore. We'll be needing to manage the consequences of our interventions in nature to extents few of us are prepared to think about, for centuries to come.

Another, even bigger problem with this thinking is that it has tended to make us into all-or-nothing thinkers. We have been warning for decades about the need to prevent catastrophe, coloring everything on the other side of catastrophe "unthinkable."

Welcome to unthinkable. It's now where we live. Climate catastrophe is now a given: it's only the degree and flavor of catastrophe that's still (hopefully) within our control. Our kids are going to spend their entire lives dealing with unfolding ecological crises. They're going to live their whole lives in a world without untouched nature, with a vast inheritance of trouble, surrounded by systems that are breaking one after another and demand large-scale aggressive interventions.

We've spent so much time working to prevent this future, that most of our established leader have spent almost no time thinking about how to live in it. Live in it we must, though: life goes on (assuming we can muster the small flicker of planetary responsibility demanded to not completely bleach the oceans or burn off the biosphere with runaway climate change; I feel confident we will, and if we don't, that's not so much an unthinkable future as a terminal one). We live in a world that's soon to have nine billion people, almost all of them urban or living close by cities, in societies that're significantly more stressed than they are now, pressing hard against planetary boundaries.

To live in this future, we'll need a few things. We'll need a model of urban prosperity that can be accepted as equitable and shared by all. We need tools for sharing innovation and spreading that model quickly to everyone. We need alliances and international agreements that will help soften the blow where its landing the hardest, help refugees, stabilize failed states, prevent wars, stop genocides, preserve global public health systems and essential governance tools (like nuclear non-proliferation agreements) and so on. And we need to be rugged enough to make it through the very hard times that we know are coming.

4) The future demands new thinking.

We need to have the capacity to change quickly, to reinvent, to distribute innovation and explore new realities: and we're going to have to do all that while the world gets weirder and many places crumble into chaos from time to time. We have to be built rugged enough to fight our way through the future's troubles, strong enough to serve as bulwarks that can help and protect the more vulnerable.

I am pretty sure that to do that, we'll need to be almost the opposite of what we've thought we need to be: we'll need to get faster and more creative, not slower and more traditional; we'll need to get bigger and more systemic, not smaller and more spread out; we're need to get networked and more complex, not simpler and more isolated.

I think the way to live in this future is to move forward. Maybe we need less relinquishment and doomerism, and more radical vision and confidence. Maybe we need to start to take responsibility for all of it, and get big enough inside to handle that gracefully. To live in the future we've made, we need to make ourselves people of the future, not reflect imperfect idealized understandings of the past.

That said, there's a lot of teaching to be done in every direction. Because while the frame of much resilience thinking is off, the thinking itself is critical. It would be an enormous service if people who really understand what's good in the ideas behind permaculture, transition, voluntary simplicity and the like were able to reframe the insights they have to the scale and urban character of future we face.

Smart people can differ on these things, but if I were asked for advice, I'd say: Forget gardening suburban lawns -- help us redesign urban foodsheds for millions. Forget cohousing -- help us retrofit an entire districts with green buildings, clean energy and green infrastructure. Forget biodiesel -- help us plan a whole new regional transportation systems. Forget ecocity ideas about making your neighborhood look like nature -- help us densifying our existing cities, changing how they connect to ecosystems so they work like nature. Forget light green frugality, household tips and small steps -- help reveal the backstory of the lives we lead and trigger a revolution in sustainable design, post-ownership and genuine prosperity. Forget countercultures. Make the real culture better. Get the new context, embrace the new tools, apply your hard-won insights to the new problems. Add to resilience a rugged urbanism; come help discover how to live in the future we have.

Artificial Islands, by NArchitects. Urbino image: Alex77, Creative Commons. Other images: ARUP, Reburbia, IEA. Link light rail by atomictaco, Creative Commons.

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Comments

This was excellent, first off.

I have a concern that's been with me through the whole piece, though, and really any time I read/hear this argument: are there examples of dense cities that DON'T produce massive poverty and create small financial/political elite groups?

Because inequality seems to be a fundamental design feature of cities, an emergent property. (And it makes a brutal kind of sense, too, as a complex adaptive system.)

Are there articles where you've already covered this question?


Posted by: Justin Boland on 10 Apr 10

"are there examples of dense cities that DON'T produce massive poverty and create small financial/political elite groups?"

Good question. I'm not sure I agree with the underlying assumption, though.

Historically, I don't think the GINI measurement of income fairness particularly correlates with population density, as much with stages of industrialization:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient

and even then, I know income disparity's much lower in many dense European countries than it is in the sprawling US.

In other words, I'm not sure that historically it's cities that produce inequality, and I definitely don't think that low-density development is the answer.

But others may have differing views and other info...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Apr 10

"See, I'm more and more convinced that the idea we as individuals, or little pocket communities, or small towns can lead the way to sustainability on our own is sort of delusional and unworthy of ourselves.... If we want to live sustainable lives, we need to make sustainable places, and in the modern world, where metropolises drive the economy and culture, that means making sustainable cities."

There is a false dichotomy here, an argument about nothing. You can't have sustainable (I prefer restorative) cities without sustainable (restorative) individuals, restorative little pocket communities (even including cohousing) and restorative neighborhoods or small towns. One step at a time. There are even ways to do that within the existing system of economics and production.

To pit "sustainable cities or bust" against a solar yurt in the backwoods inhabited by Ted Kaczynski or Henry David Thoreau is the reductio ad absurdum of this argument and it seems to me you are coming mighty close to it in this piece of writing.

I can understand your frustration and the fact that it is way past time for action but I don't think picking these kinds of arguments advances the cause. Peter Head of Arup has a plan for sustainable (not restorative) cities for a 9 billion person world by 2050 at http://www.arup.com/Publications/Entering_the_Ecological_Age.aspx

Is that credible? Is that feasible? Is that possible? Certainly it can't be done without sustainable/restorative individuals, neighborhoods, towns, and regions to support those cities.

My own particular image of the future is New Alchemy Institute and John Todd's ecological design matched with Christopher Alexander's pattern language but I'm open to other possibilities.


Posted by: gmoke on 10 Apr 10

"My own particular image of the future is New Alchemy Institute and John Todd's ecological design matched with Christopher Alexander's pattern language but I'm open to other possibilities."

Nice! Mine's Jane Jacobs meets Gary Snyder, with a dash of Christopher Alexander, some Amory Lovins, pinches of Bruce Sterling, Jan Gehl, Bill Dunster, Janine Benyus and a spice mix packet of contemporary sustainable urbanists, designers and technologists, mostly Europeans.

Okay, I just named half the field, I guess. It's more a stew than a refined dish ;)


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Apr 10

Maybe we also need to stop making false dichotomies like "bright green vs dark green". Not all people who see the potential for system breakdowns are doomers.

Don't get me wrong, Alex - I totally agree with you regarding regional bases, automobile unsustainability, and most of the rest. However, a regional basis requires looking at transitions of all kinds, from urban to rural. 50% of the US population is in the 'burbs - simply saying "we need more compact density areas" isn't really useful, whereas working WITH transition folks to create multiple cores in the 'burbs themselves may be.

As far as "more complexity" goes, you'll have to do a decent analysis of Tainter to show why greater system complexity is a good thing. It appears likely to many of us that greater complexity (at this point) leads to a greater likelihood of cascade failures.


Posted by: Greg on 10 Apr 10

Some random, rambling thoughts for now:

1. I see a lot of sense in most of this.
2. Have you been reading Anderson's 'Tau Zero' recently?
3. I am still of the opinion that the 'urban gardens' and transition movements are an essential part of the process (for the purposes of raininsg awareness and encouraging engagement in the problems we face. I do not think they are the final solution.. the 'energy descent plan' is as far of Hopkins et al have got in a deliberately open-ended strategy. I think you can work with these people. Yes, there are a few apocaphiles in the mix (as we saw the last time this was discussed), but that's not where they're going! Hint: UK thinking isn't necessarily US thinking)
4. Something (probably obvious) that occurred to me the other day: walkability depends on a parity in real estate prices: people need to be able to afford to live near where they work. (which is where the back-story comes in again)
5. In 'The Weathermakers', Tim Flannery points out that the first cities arose as a result of an increasingly arid climate (probably as an ongoing result of the end of the last ice age) Declining land fertility meant that societies needed to become more efficient.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 11 Apr 10

I think Hong Kong may be a good example of a high density city that works. Not that there is no poverty, (and which city has none at all?) but there is evidently a large hard working middle class. Interestingly it is also much greener (by which I mean surrounded by vegetation rather than environmentally friendlier, I've no idea how it figures on that score) than one would ever expect as so much of it is far to steep to build upon and yet covered in subtropical vegetation. It also has the most efficient mass transport system I've ever seen.

I think you are quite right to argue that the bigger picture is far more complex than most people realise, but maybe we need to encourage people to make the smaller steps and some will then go onto to understand the bigger decisions that need to be faced. If you start with the big picture, many will simply give up because of the enormity of the issue.

By the way, as well as the huge impact of car use, I would guess that the carbon footprint of air-conditioners is massive, and yet I've never really heard about anyone tackling society's love affair with these.


Posted by: Sophie Garrett on 12 Apr 10

Lots of good info in both the article and the comments. With regard to making cities more compact and more affordable, I would commend an article from the ICMA web site which can be found at http://icma.org/pm/9202/public/cover.cfm?author=Walter%20Rybeck&title=Retooling%20Property%20Taxes



Posted by: Rick Rybeck on 12 Apr 10

Great post.

At some point here, you bump into the political system. It will need major change for a sustainable future to begin to happen.


Posted by: Bob Morris on 12 Apr 10

Off topic...
Paul Krugman seems to have answered Alex's prayers...
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/magazine/11Economy-t.html?src=me&ref=general

Would love to hear Alex's thoughts on the article...

(feel free to delete this comment)


Posted by: Bill S on 12 Apr 10

Great post, Alex. In response to some of the comments about poverty and the city: there is certainly more poverty in cities, but I don’t think it’s the cities themselves that are responsible. Poverty and financial elites exists everywhere – rural , suburban, and urban areas. Cities manifest these conditions in a more concentrated manner, but that doesn’t mean that they cause them. Certainly many urban policies in the past (red lining, urban renewal) have targeted minorities and the lower class, but these were caused by people (not all of them actually living in cities). The question I think we need to ask is how our society can better address poverty in all areas.


Posted by: Joshua Curtis on 12 Apr 10

Hey Alex...outstanding, really. As you know I have been playing with the smaller "quick wins" v. systemic change on myurbanist.com, probably due to my schizophrenia as both a lawyer (incremental) and planner (systemic, maybe). This is great stuff though.


Posted by: Chuck Wolfe on 12 Apr 10

Good post Alex, and I agree you can't address sustainability & resilience without addressing cities, and city-scale solutions. One of the problems - from a US-centric point of view is that density=poverty. I think that is partly a factor of what its surrounded by, i.e. if you have a dense, poor, coor surrounded by suburbs you have the worst of both. If you take a (planned) suburb, and condense it into a dense core, and take the land that would be suburb and make it openspace (wild &/or park land &/or food production (and make sure it can never be developed) then you have the best of both. Moscow is, or was 10 years ago, a terrible city, but dense, transit-connected, pockets with parkland around was one thing it did well. They were poor, but I would argue that if you took the same number of (poor) people, and spread them over the parkland into a (poor) suburb and you'd have a LOWER quality of life, and less sustainability.


Posted by: Mitra Ardron on 13 Apr 10

Assuming everyone buys your denser-is-better argument for cities, what do you see happening to the assets still tied up in suburbia? Do we simply abandon everything? Try to tear it down and reuse it? We've spent a LOT of money building out subs, I think most people are not going to reliquish that investment lightly. (I'm in no way saying it was a good investment)
What do you propose we do about food? Do you think some form of the mechanized monoculture we enjoy now will survive? I doubt it, I think we're going to need more farmers, more actual people doing the actual farming. Are you thinking these people will live inthe cities and farm the surrounding area? Or are you envisioning a third of Americans living rural existances to support the dense cities?
Thanks for taking my questions. I like your argument, I think you're on to something. I look forward to reading more.


Posted by: Jennie Erwin on 13 Apr 10

We-ell, I don't think outer suburban housing is worth all that much these days.

A large portion of it is/was originally quite arable land (this is certainly true of Melbourne, which has got a serious sprawl problem).

As I mentioned earlier, density requires that you can afford to live where you work. A corollary might be 'can you afford to commute to where you work?'

The density constraints are reduced markedly if you include cycling as a form of commute (I coin the term 'pedability' for this)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 13 Apr 10

Alex, your thoughts parallel those of Claude Lewenz over at http://www.villageforum.com/
Claude is actually at the point of building some examples of where we all need to end up. My main concern is that we don't have the time to rebuild every town from scratch, which is really the way to do it if you follow his guidelines. So for the rest of us, our survivability will hinge on how well we can repurpose a large part of what we already have. Having worked with a couple of city councils towards rezoning and sustainability issues, I don't have a lot of optimism left on this score.


Posted by: Greg Yurash on 14 Apr 10

When I get most optimistic about our chances of changing the culture is when I become floored about the diversity of approaches and ways in which people are creatively addressing the sustainability crisis. Alex is absolutely right that getting cities and regional areas right is critical to building a sustainable future, and that we need more people engaged at that level.

I find your conclusion a bit rough though on those who are trying to carve out in their own backyards and neighborhoods some models of sustainability. I think many people engage at this level because they want to feel connected to natures processes and people in a manner that our culture has made so difficult. They feel that they can make these models work in contrast engagement in high-level design and engagement in local politics that make them feel impotent.

I think there is room the the green tent for all at the moment, we cannot pretend that those practicing they're dark green skills in their backyards and communities are not reaching out and affecting many others around them... great work can be done through individual efforts.

On a bike ride this last Sunday I was uplifted to see the frequency with which I passed yards in West Seattle where people were building new garden beds in their front yard. This is not the work of "building foodsheds for millions" for sure... but it represents more and more families with children and neighbors who appreciate where food comes and the wholesomeness and spirtuality that can be had in a connection with that food. That connection is important even for urbanites.

I hope more and more people focus on these bright green solutions to sustainability at the city level, but this does not nullify the importance of the work of the permaculturists and transition-towners.


Posted by: Bill Reiswig on 14 Apr 10

Richard Heinberg distilled some thoughts on sustainability into the 5 axioms:

http://richardheinberg.com/178-five-axioms-of-sustainability

In essence, the axioms amount to:

1. Consumption of any resource beyond its renewal rate is unsustainable

2. Damaging our habitat/environment/biosphere is unsustainable

How does Alex's vision map to these axioms? I ask because any strategy that isn't sustainable will, of course, ultimately collapse, entirely because of its inherent unsustainable nature (i.e. leaving aside external events over which we have no control).


Posted by: Tony Weddle on 14 Apr 10

Interesting and challenging piece, with many good ideas. But I think you stumble over the artificial dichotomy of small systems vs. large systems. It has to be both. Open systems have the property of "equifinality."

Equifinality
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Equifinality is the principle that in open systems a given end state can be reached by many potential means. The term is due to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of General Systems Theory. He prefers this term, in contrast to "goal", in describing complex systems' similar or convergent behavior.

It emphasizes that the same end state may be achieved via many different paths or trajectories.

In closed systems, a direct cause-and-effect relationship exists between the initial condition and the final state of the system: When a computer's 'on' switch is pushed, the system powers up.

Open systems (such as biological and social systems), however, operate quite differently. The idea of equifinality suggests that similar results may be achieved with different initial conditions and in many different ways. [1]


In thinking about the sustainability, if everyone gets to work at whatever level of system complexity they're capable of, the equifinality of the system will mean that many paths will converge toward similar results.

If we could agree on some basic ecological principles to inform design at all levels, that would help a lot.

We could have urban design, retrofitting (like Lovins & co are doing/did with the Empire State Bldg0, urban homesteaders such as these folk , Transition Communities, and European style hill communities and a bunch of other stuff all converging on sustainability.


Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 14 Apr 10

First, thanks to GMOKE to pointing to alternatives to the TT model. I look forward to checking out the websites. I would certainly be interested in reading a quick and dirty comparative analysis of different approaches that address citizen engagement, government initiatives and policy, private enterprise and associated stakeholders. Anybody compiled something like that already? If not, let's do it. Process definitely has a place, at the very least to get people on a similar page. Which leads me to my second point...

I am utterly convinced we do NOT need yet another institute, group, committee, organization, think tank, website, etc. to move forward on these issues. I'm getting a little tired of the endless chitter-chatter and flitting about. Sadly, so much useful energy gets sucked into the political machinations and bureaucracy of running an organization, regardless of its size, that there often isn't much left over for the real 'doing' work. And attending endless meetings or conferences is not my personal idea of real work. We need to find ways (which should be simple in our technological age) to make meaningful connections with others who are already pursuing solutions to our varied human problems. It's more like putting the pieces of a puzzle together than it is creating a hierarchical structure.

I'm done school in two weeks - a trades-based program on building sustainable housing - so I want to find out what others are doing and where my skills and interest might dovetail with the needs of existing/ developing projects instead of reinventing the wheel. As a matter of fact, Alex, you're in a great position to add some space to your website where people can post what they're doing and what they need from others. It would be an excellent opportunity to support the tangible doing and connect many of the bright, motivated folks who contribute to intelligent blogs like this, people who might not otherwise meet.


Posted by: Andrea Cordonier on 14 Apr 10

Eisenhower’s Gold-Plated Gift!
Bold Ideas = Lasting Prosperity in this Age Without Oil

President Eisenhower gifted us with the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (Public Law 84-627) on June 29, 1956, whose, “importance to industry, commerce, the economy and recreation and travel cannot be overstated." and, which is "a tremendous engineering achievement that maintains the economic growth of America." What will we do to maintain his legacy, in the face of the catastrophe that will come to 304 million Americans if we can find no other ways to produce food, move freight and people in the absence of petroleum?
Americans use on average double the energy per capita of the average European, and a much higher multiple of any of the world's other citizens - is this sustainable? Are our recent wars a sign that we are moving toward or away from true sustainability, resolving or aggravating the problems of Global Climate Change and the End of Oil?
Are sky scrapers really the model, conceived over a century ago when the automobile was still a babe in the cradle, that we must set for a future that must, by simple mathematical necessity, be 100% sustainable?
I would like to submit to you another model that I believe will become the replacement for all skyscrapers as they rust into oblivion, simply because skyscrapers are gourmands for the energy that this planet no longer has.

What if we laid skyscrapers on their sides, so that:
1. Everyone living and working in them has access to land for the production of food without petroleum,
2. Everyone has access to maglev and conventional rail lines that use only 1/3 of the energy/passenger mile that cars and aircraft use, and that are very appropriate to this new urban form,
3. The enormously wasteful energy expenditure of the twice daily commutes by billions of people worldwide are avoided, to give the generations that follow ours - read your own great great great great great great grandchildren - can have access to the energy, plastics, fertilizers, pesticides and cosmetics that petroleum currently supplies. Those commuting to fill the desks in skyscrapers worldwide, for example, might easily travel 30 miles in the morning and 30 miles in the evening. The USA commits enormous amounts of money and time daily to commuting: according to the U.S. News & World Report, the average American commutes 33 miles per day to and from work, an ABC poll states that 220 million adults average an hour and a half a day in their cars, (25.1 minutes per day is average), and overall Americans use 390 million gallons/day of gasoline. Is this sustainable even within our own lifetimes?
4. We are no longer forced to spend enormous amounts of energy on air conditioning to avoid the totally nonsensical "heat island" effect of cities,
5. The screamingly extreme cost of miniscule plots in central cities, coupled with extortionate building costs can be bypassed,
6. 100% of our energy can be produced from renewable sources, without any of the electrical distribution networks that currently waste 6 - 60% of the energy generated in transmission alone.

These horizontal "sky"scrapers might be called Linear Cities, as seen on my website at www.greenmillennium.eu. Please remember that the much vaunted energy efficiency of cities also depends on a massive supply of cheap food, which will disappear overnight when there is no more petroleum, because food depends for 95% of its price on the price of petroleum, which is used in running all a farmer’s equipment, in producing fertilizers and pesticides and in trucking/flying it to distant markets!


Posted by: Mr. Kim Gyr on 14 Apr 10

I'm a bit surprised by this post. I agree completely with your principles 1-4, but I interpret them quite differently.

I think the scope of resilience is important to understand, but more from the perspective that resilience is a ground-up trait characterized by redundant functionality and elements. How are your mega-cities going to have redundant energy, food, and water systems to make living in them through natural disasters and mundane element failures comfortable for millions of people? How do you propose to be both energy-efficient and redundant in designing these large-scale systems?

Sustainability does need to be a systemic effort, and I think your straw-man characterization of people making individual and small community efforts is the opposite of this. What is a system made up of but components, and how are your grand visions going to gain political support if you keep bashing others for having the "wrong" vision of sustainability?

Ruggedness is important, but I'm surprised that you didn't bother defining it or using it as an adjective for anything but urbanism. What is rugged about mega-cities with increasingly complex (and vulnerable) support systems that rely on distant food- and watersheds? Are you just expecting people to suck it up and be "rugged urbanists" through food shortages when the one rail line connecting them to distant food supplies gets damaged by a landslide, flood, or other natural event?

The future does demand new thinking, but it'll have to come from somewhere else. New thinking does not insist that the future look like the present, only more so and without cars. All you have done is rehash the New Urbanist creed, the Solartopia arguments, and (quite surprisingly) the survivalist-militia/ecovillage cohousing logic without apparently realizing it.

"We need to have the capacity to change quickly, to reinvent, to distribute innovation and explore new realities: and we're going to have to do all that while the world gets weirder and many places crumble into chaos from time to time. We have to be built rugged enough to fight our way through the future's troubles, strong enough to serve as bulwarks that can help and protect the more vulnerable." Replace "innovation" with "sustainability" and you're living in Eco-Village Ithaca, replace it with "freedom" and you've just joined the Michigan Militia.

Also, if you want sustainability, doesn't that involve fossil-fuel-free agriculture? How do you square that with people living almost entirely in hyper-dense cities?

You've clearly got passion, and you're a decent writer, but this post is of pretty low quality because of loose definitions, self-contradiction, historical ignorance, and an overpopulation of straw-men (you're insisting that the sustainability movement is only focusing on preserving open space and wilderness... at least take your audience seriously).


Posted by: Steve Morgan on 15 Apr 10

But climate change is only half the problem. Energy use is the other.

All personal automobiles, "green" or not, sit unused 95 percent of the time. Given that even tiny (and therefore extremely dangerous to their occupants) "green" cars will have to weigh in at something like 1,500 pounds, this is simple madness, from an energy-use point of view.


Posted by: Michael Dawson on 15 Apr 10


Joshua Curtis wrote:

"Certainly many urban policies in the past (red lining, urban renewal) have targeted minorities and the lower class, but these were caused by people (not all of them actually living in cities). The question I think we need to ask is how our society can better address poverty in all areas."

I agree, and this brought up a related point that I was thinking about when I read this; what could be done to address issues of affordability so you don't end up with poor people being driven out of cities, or people who live in suburbs who would want something more dense simply can't afford to make this kind of change? I think this kind of question is especially important given how terrible the employment situation is in the United States.


Posted by: Harris Wilkes on 15 Apr 10

Alex, despite your protestations (apparently unread by some of these commenters), this is a solid post - lots of good thinking here. Some rough & random thoughts:

What you term complexity, I would call diversity; I disagree with the commenter who proposed redundancy is expressed as multiple copies of the same thing. Redundancy/resilience comes from sufficient diversity. This is explicitly why some cities/regions collapse when faced with (economic) change. Similarly, resilience in this context is also health. Healthy = resilient. The flip side of both of these is 'mono'. Monoculture, monolithic, monotone... Mono = vulnerable. Mono is our current default.

I like your 'wired medieval city' (especially because Knute Berger doesn't). Central to the failure of modern cities is the space given over to cars/non-human uses, as well as near-universal privatization (at least in the US). There's simply not enough unstructured space. Increased density/urbanization works only if it re-humanizes the city. The suburbs are a genuine response to this failure; I would suggest the reason Transition etc. has struck a nerve is that a neighborhood is in some ways like an embedded small town. This isn't a bad thing - so long as the 'embedded' part happens.

As for the suburban design ethos you critique, the solution may be the same regional growth; it's an opportunity for density/urbanization outside the current city limits. While you're right about suburban stormwater gardens, there are opportunities for re-purposing currently suburban areas to function as urban centers, with enough growth. Not Marysville, but Issaquah? Sure.

Last thought about complexity. Here's a fundamental problem: we are bad at managing the complexity we have now. Our current economic & institutional systems do not support systemic thinking. Aiming for increased complexity - especially in the solutions space - requires that we change some pretty fundamental decision-making processes first.


Posted by: Justus on 18 Apr 10

(Note: My posted blog url is brand new and nothing posted yet, plz bear with me - I am working on it)

I found this article to be very thought-provoking in spite of some of the above-mentioned opinions of its short-comings. The dilemma you have put forth is the same one that I, myself, rack my brain over constantly.

Ok - so we all know we are at Peak Oil, and that the way we live is not sustainable, and what's more, the systems we all depend on are about to come crashing down at our feet. What is inescapable, is that we must come up with a substitute that is not only sustainable, but that will ensure our own individual survival. I believe that many - including myself, have recognized that due to the difficulty (impossibility?) of mobilizing the masses without intelligent and cohesive direction by our government, together with the efforts of a crowd of the most talented engineers, scientists, architects, agriculturists, and etc., working together on a common cause, - well, that given the corruption, greed, and corporatist takeover of ALL of our systems, it is highly unlikely that an effort at this level, with the utopian common goal of achieving sustainability and new, equitable systems for attaining survival of all of us, will ever become a reality.

I, personally, have come to the conclusion that without a clear vision and dedication of purpose on the part of "the powers that be", and the removal of all negative and counter-productive corporate and political interests, it will not be possible to achieve the utopian "urban greening" on a mass scale, such as you envision. It's a nice vision, but given the reality of greed, corruption, and corporate strangle-holds on everything, it's not going to happen. The only kind of "mass green construction" we are going to get is the kind that is going to cost us up the butthole, and is going to make some big monopolistic corporation a whole bunch of money, and which will keep us under the foot of the "masters", for their benefit and not ours.

My conclusion is that we must start somewhere. And that "somewhere" is with ourselves, each of us, personally, and individually. We must stop relying on the "system" and we must refuse to be a part of it. We must make up our minds to do this, and just do it. Work toward this goal, little by little, but with determination. Get out of the cities, get to a rural area, somewhere where you can still get land for cheap (the southern states still have land for $1500-$2500 an acre!) Learn how to drive a well, learn how to build a solar/wind power system. Learn how to grow food. Make friends, hook up with other people, and form communities. And once you get going, hook into the larger communities around you. We must re-skill - relearn the skills that our ancestors knew - skills for survival, and skills that we can use in a Post Peak Oil world.

If we do this, and if we are able to form connections with the communities around us, we need to find ways to build alternate local economic systems.

This is not going to be done overnight. This involves a complete and total restructuring of our values, our expectations, and our way of life. It has to start with each one of us. And the natural consequence of us all doing this, will be that we will, over time, build a new way of living, new communities, and new economies. Even the way government works will change - would necessarily become more local.

Creating those "pockets" of green within urban and suburban areas will later be of much value, and should not be disdained as of small value. When our power grids go down, those pockets will be feeding the rest. If you do live in a city, you should either be creating one of those green pockets, or you should be joining up with one.

Learn how to survive and how to take care of yourself - your ancestors did it. They built and lived in sod or cob houses, raised their own food and livestock, made their own clothing and furniture, and they did NOT have electricity, nor did they have cars. With the knowledge we have today that they did NOT have, we can learn how to live much better than they did. We can all learn about solar and wind energy and all the rest.

What we need to do is work on COMMUNICATIONS. We need people who can build wireless networks so we can continue to be able to communicate with each other. And we need to work on how to power machinery for agriculture and for transportation without OIL.

Thank you for a very interesting article! I appreciated it.


Posted by: MagicStarER on 9 May 10

i've been thinking about the fundamental difference of orientation between transition and bright green for a while. are there too many differences for us to work together? or is there enough overlap that it makes sense to knit our efforts into a cohesive whole?

turns out i had too much to say for a comment here, so i wrote a blog post about it. would be grateful for input from this community!

shortened link: http://bit.ly/c7C85T


Posted by: Megan Dietz on 29 Jun 10

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