Monday, September 24, 2007


It’s very interesting to see the “alarmism” behind the peak oil crew is becoming reality today. The price of oil is now around $82/barrel, up from the $50s at the beginning of this year. It looks like the $100/barrel figure is not too far away. Countries dependent on oil imports would be smart to find serious homegrown alternatives. The introduction of Ecocities paints the picture really well. We’ve got all these problems from sprawl to global warming to declining resources. Many organizations focus on tackling these issues directly. Yet cities, which today have more than 50% of the world population, are really the physical root of the problem. Without a major redesign and operational change for all cities, many of these problems will persist.

We have to completely stop sprawling our major cities and encouraging a car culture that is expensive in terms of the resources it uses as well as the health, congestion, and climate problems it causes. As the author says, working on any of the four main problems – sprawl, freeways, cars, and oil – will likely “bring down the whole destructive edifice.” We need to begin implementing new forms of transportation that is accessible, affordable, and timely; we need to create food systems and pass policies that discourage long-distance shipping and cheaper-than-reality food; we need to design cities for people and biodiversity, not for steel and asphalt; and finally we need to shift from negative to positive impact (beyond reducing impact).

In Chapter 8, Richard (the author) clearly shows how we need to view society in order to radically change cities. We have to understand that there is a human economy that is derived from a natural economy, and that there is no alternative to this derivation. The natural economy, or the “resource base,” is the bottom layer of the cake we’re sitting on. In order to ensure that the human economy can continue sitting on the natural economy, we must redesign cities through the following instruments:

1) Maps, which allow us to zone cities in such a way as to increase density, design an efficient transportation system, and provide both open space for recreation and agricultural/extractive activities.
2) Technologies, which can range from renewable energy technologies to bicycles. These are necessary because we can only support such a large population with the technology we’ve been able to develop.
3) Incentives. This is perhaps the most important instrument. People follow incentives. When people are given incentives to do good things, they will do them. However, today we provide incentives for activities such as unsustainable agriculture, fossil fuel extraction, and destructive mining. Shifting these incentives to promote good activities such as renewable energy use are essential to reshaping cities.
4) People. There are 6.7 billion people in the world, and half of them are in cities. We need to work with and capacitate people if we are to reshape cities. Unemployed people, as Joan Bokaer suggests, are a great source of capacity for rebuilding or redesigning cities.

For the rest of the future, cities will be the places where real changes will have to happen. In order to avoid a major collapse of some populations, as it has happened in the past, we must understand what’s at risk and work to reduce that risk substantially.

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