Urban Design After the Age of Oil: Notes from Day 1

While TreeHugger readers are generally optimistic types, there is no question that with climate chaos, peak oil, economic meltdown and whatever else might be the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, things could get pretty dire, and pretty quickly.

So when I was asked to liveblog the Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design after the age of Oil conference I expected some urgency about the subject of urban design after the age of oil. Yet everyone was surprisingly relaxed.

It started off with Betsy Kolbert asking the question "How large and daunting is the problem we face?" and with Adil Najam of Boston University answering with a story:

Imagine that we were from another planet, coming to write a report evaluating the earth. How would we describe the planet as a whole?

-an extremely poor country
-it would be a very divided country.
-it would be a very degraded country.
-it would be a very insecure country.
-it would be a poorly governed country.
-it would be an unsafe country.

"If there is as an interplanetary travel advisory it would be to stay away from planet earth. Our world is a third world country. I wish the world was Sweden but it isn't. The connectedness of environmental challenges forces us to confront otherwise neglected aspects of our global connectedness."

But early into the sessions William Rees of the University of British Columbia questioned the panel: "I'm concerned that there seems to be a great gulf between the urgency of the problem and the solutions we appear to be willing to make."

Randy Crane writes about his concerns and summarized the problem that we have to answer, noting that the glib answers are often oversimplified:


Stop sprawl. Get people out of the cars (especially the Chinese and Indians, and Los Angelenos). Move us into compact, mixed use communities. ASAP. But each of these represents huge, extremely problematic tradeoffs that must be productively negotiated with full attention to the competing constituencies at each step of the way. It would be great if that wasn't so but as H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it's wrong."

There was some discussion about urban design, notably in the lunchtime presentation by UK Engineer Peter Head. Randy Crane writes:

Detailed and attractively rendered guidelines for urban design were flashed on the screen (probably available from www.arup.com), with particular emphasis on literally greening cities and suburbs with more vegetation on roofs and sides and roads (professional gardening is a growth industry in these scenarios). Transport alternatives fell into 3 categories: high speed rail, zero emission mass transit, and consolidated centers for freight delivery.

Alex Steffen tried to work up the crowd with a great talk. Elizabeth Evitts Dickenson of Metropolis writes about his discussion of transparency:

"When we put the energy meter on the inside of the house, the household energy use goes down by 7%. Just by showing people their use of energy."

Steffen just called this kind of transparency the Prius Effect—when drivers have their mileage meters inside and can understand how the fuel is spent, they become more thoughtful drivers. By revealing useage behind the scenes, we can help individuals see connections. We understand the price at the pump, it's time to understand the cost at the thermostat as well.

I was really looking forward to the presentation of Stephen Kierans of Kierans Timberlake, and Lance Hosey of McDonough Associates. I left it profoundly depressed. It seems that the reason nobody is really talking about design in a world after oil is that it really has not sunk in, that nobody really believes it is going to happen, or that some marvelous technology will save us. More here.

Nate Berg attended the same seminar and notes that

Peak oil is the idea that we have passed the point of maximum extraction of oil from the world. Some say this day is coming soon. Others say it has already come. Both agree that oil will not be around forever. The point of this symposium is to figure out a way for cities to react as it runs out. But the problem is not the time frame, its the mindframe.

It does not appear that we are in that mindframe yet.

Tags: Cities | Peak Oil | Urban Planning