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With all the efforts going into urban climate action plans and carbon reduction, will many cities and suburbs be caught unprepared for other sustainability crises, such as acute water or energy shortages?

In carbon reduction management, should efforts such as focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency deserve the highest priority, when a city such as San Francisco produces 78 percent of its greenhouse gases from transportation and only 17 percent from buildings?

These are questions that both policy makers and sustainability planners need to consider as we move into an era of climate change compounded by either diminishing resources and/or resources that are expected to continue to have extreme price volatility, such as gasoline.

My last post reviewed the findings of a UK industry study, partially backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Group, forecasting a major "oil crunch" by 2014-15 that could potentially mean shorter supplies and much high prices for gasoline. Because US cities do not use oil for electric power generation (Honolulu is the only one that still does), there should be much more focus in US cities on transportation and in other key areas that will be more severely impacted by the high price of oil. Cities should look at everything from citizen and business mobility options, to supplies such as asphalt for street paving, to regional food security.

At no time has effective planning, land use and public transit been so key to ensuring economic vitality, as well as equity (access to jobs and services with transit), environmental sustainability, climate security and health. That doesn't mean that increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency shouldn't be part of every community's planning, projects and budgets. It does mean that cities will need to simultaneously prioritize action plans for carbon reduction, peaking energy and peaking freshwater, which very few are doing, outside of those involved in the Transition Town movement.

To help illustrate the complexities of what I'm getting at, consider the following example. Water use in California accounts for 20 percent of electrical power use. This energy is needed to move water supplies from places with water to those largely without or to treat drinking water and wastewater.

Renewable energy sources such as solar thermal generating plants also require great amounts of water, competing for precious water supplies that can be used for drinking water and growing or processing food.

So where do water, oil or grain shortages fit in your city's or region's sustainability plan? There are no easy answers, and metro regions and cities will want to collectively consider their own energy, water and food sources when trying to assess combined carbon reduction goals and resource depletion risk factors.

I've developed some general urban resiliency rules of thumb for an upcoming chapter in the Post Carbon Institute's Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises, which is coming out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media:

  1. Planning: Enable the development of vibrant mixed-use communities and higher-density regional centers, that create a sense of place, allow for transportation choices (other than private automobiles), and protect regional agricultural, watershed, and wildlife habitat lands.
  2. Mobility: Invest in high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit infrastructure with easy access, shared connectivity and rich information sources, from signage to cell phone alerts.
  3. Built Environment: Design new buildings and associated landscaping--and retrofit existing buildings--for state-of-the-art energy (smart grid applications), and resource efficiency, integrated with mobility options.
  4. Economy: Support businesses in order to provide quality local jobs and to meet the needs of the new economy with renewable energy and other "green" technologies and services. Support local and regional economic decision-makers in adapting to the new world of rising prices, volatile energy supplies and national demographic shifts.
  5. Food: Develop regional organic food production, processing, and metro-area distribution networks.
  6. Resources: Drastically cut use of water, waste and materials, re-using them whenever possible.
  7. Management: Engage government, businesses and citizens together in resilience planning and implementation; track and communicate the successes, failures, and opportunities of this community-wide effort.

These categories are not meant to be "checklist" items for sustainability or resilience planning, but rather lay out the relevant areas that should comprise planning for integrated metro area systems. Each metro area and every city should be looking at these factors together, in order to model how well they are prepared to collaboratively contend with risks such as:

  1. Changing regional or local climate: extreme heat events, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events
  2. Prolonged drought, e.g. loss of mountain snowpacks or aquifers providing water for residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural use
  3. Oil crunches, including extreme price volatility; supply shocks from wars, political events, terrorism, natural disasters
  4. Food security risks from high oil prices, drought, energy-food competition (biofuels), large-scale contamination, etc.

Admittedly, the overlapping and inextricable problems that cities face today can be overwhelming, especially when budgets are tight or non-existent, and people's time is stretched to the breaking point.

Selective problem solving, such as climate action planning if it is done in isolation from resilience planning, however, may lend a false sense of security for cities on the brink of an era that promises to be very different than anything ever experienced in the past.

 Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

Originally published March 03, 2010 at the Green Flow blog of Common Currents

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