Books call for resilience in green urban design

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Two new books by leading academics Profs Peter Newman (left) and Timothy Beatley underscore the urgent need for strategic, efficient design in our buildings and cities – and there is no room for pessimism in the masterplan! JOHN POWER reports.

In early April Facility Management had the pleasure of attending the Melbourne session of an international book launch tour showcasing two new books by Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University, WA; and Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz professor of sustainable communities, University of Virginia. The launch, conducted with the assistance of leading planning, environment and infrastructure consultancy Parsons Brinckeroff, as well as the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), provided both authors with an opportunity to outline the major issues raised in their books and to summarise suggested directions for sensible urban development.
The books, Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change (Island Press, Washington, 2009), and Green Urbanism Down Under: Learning from Sustainable Communities in Australia (Island Press, Washington, 2009), explain and assess the latest critical thinking in urban design management.
Resilient Cities examines progressive urban planning initiatives in various cities across the globe, including Australian metropolises. Expressed in terms of climate change and peak oil (peak oil is defined on page 19 as the ‘maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion’), the book presents options for our future energy needs and social interactions in urban environments, with alternative electrical technologies underpinning our building, transport and infrastructure needs in place of fossil fuels. Meaningful solutions to climate change and the problem of declining oil reserves must involve a full reinvention of cityscapes, the book suggests, bearing in mind that “the activities that produce the greatest contribution to global warming are concentrated in urban areas – transport, industry, buildings (in the US: industry, 30 percent; transportation, 28 percent; commercial, 17 percent; residential, 17 percent; and agriculture, 8 percent).”

The book goes on to itemise four scenarios for generic future cities, ranging from ‘collapse’ to ‘ruralised’, ‘divided’ and (ideally) the ‘resilient’ city. While the authors see no gainful point in entertaining a pessimistic ‘collapse’ scenario, they also reject the ruralised option (increasingly self-sufficient homes or small communities) because this model perpetuates and justifies urban sprawl and achieves little for citywide resilience on large-scale matters of energy, water, waste and food management. Moreover, the divided city (polarised by wealthy precincts or suburbs with high-class efficiency facilities, alongside poorer quarters with substandard amenities) is also rejected as a non-comprehensive solution. Instead, the ‘resilient’ city is presented as the preferred option, occurring when “the access and alternate forms of fuel and buildings in eco-enclaves that were the province of the wealthy in the divided city scenario are provided for all.” In such an environment there would be a greater emphasis on high-density inner-urban housing, more elaborate light rail, bicycle and train corridors, preference for civic infrastructure development along these corridors, and fringe food bowl and manufacturing centres functioning alongside a spate of eco-villages that harness passive principles of self-sufficiency.
The book concludes with 10 practical and strategic steps to achieve the resilient city.
For readers more interested in purely Australian urban affairs, the book Green Urbanism Down Under is an insightful analysis of our city culture, planning and directions in planning development. As the book points out, approximately 90 percent of Australians live in cities, so most of us will necessarily be participants to some extent in future urban reform.

Green Urbanism, more specific in its Australian content than Resilient Cities, offers an in-depth portrait of the natural and ecologically sustainable precincts in our major cities – green zones that are all too often taken for granted.
As Prof Beatley, a native American, said at the launch, Australian cities feature a diversity of wildlife and habitats that frequently amaze visitors from older urban centres in the Northern Hemisphere.
The book defines our natural urban assets in detail, ranging from descriptions of individual flora and fauna species to discussions of the role of larger-scale wildlife corridors and parklands. It compares the natural and cultural values of these assets across all major Australian cities and also recognises that many agencies and volunteer groups take part in maintaining and protecting these green precincts.

Neither Prof Newman nor Prof Beatley claim to be modern incarnations of H.G. Wells – their books do not indulge in long-term speculation about the futuristic appearance or shape of sustainable cities. The authors, for instance, do not take account of the possible impacts of new technologies on our workplace designs and employment practices and hours, or the consequent potential changes to the placement, usage or size of commercial buildings…. Is there a place for central business districts in major sustainable cities of the future? Will existing small or ‘strip’ retail precincts have a place in future sustainable cities, or will residents prefer online purchasing practices or one-stop-shop malls? What would be the effects on commercial/residential infrastructure of any changes to our retail shopping habits? Such questions are not canvassed.
Nor do the authors attempt to predict real-life winners in any prospective political or ethical battles between property developers and civic planners, though they do acknowledge that effective community planning must operate hand-in-hand with the interests of commerce, as exemplified by many successful existing PPP (public, private partnership) projects.
On the contrary, both books are firmly rooted in an analysis of contemporary ‘best practice’, recommending the strategic and sensible adoption or expansion of many of the more obvious methods for achieving wise sustainable growth. These practical initiatives include more bicycle lanes and electric vehicles, community-wide and building-specific solar power and hot water installations, more high-class public transport networks, mainstream rooftop gardens, etc.
These are all ‘here and now’ solutions to our urban development challenges – solutions that have added urgency for their clarity, affordability and uncluttered common sense.

Peter Newman is professor of sustainability at Curtin University of Technology in WA and director of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute. He is recognised internationally as one of the world’s leaders in sustainability.

Timothy Beatley is Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. His books include Green Urbanism (2000) and Ecology of Place (1997). Professor Beatley has written 13 books on the subjects of cities, planning and policy and is considered one of America’s foremost researchers on sustainability.

This article first appeared in the Green Zone section of ‘Facility Management’, June-July 09 issue.


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