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Post Carbon Cities 2008 Year in Review

2008 saw a flurry of new government responses to peak oil, plus groundbreaking legislation in California. Also, the oil price spike, the intensifying global recession, and the historic US presidential election have all helped create a sea change in our thinking about energy and what it means for the economy.


2008 saw a flurry of new government responses to peak oil, plus groundbreaking legislation in California. Also, the oil price spike, the intensifying global recession, and the historic US presidential election have all helped create a sea change in our thinking about energy and what it means for the economy.

Government responses to peak oil

Portland Peak Oil Task Force2008 was a big year for government responses to peak oil. When we released our government peak oil guidebook Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty in October 2007, the cities acting on peak oil were largely the 'usual suspects': San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and a handful of small West Coast towns.

Since then a broad range of cities and towns, as well as some counties and states, have taken up the challenge. Conservative, rural Spokane, Washington became the first North American city to launch a joint peak oil - climate change task force, in February. Towns as geographically and economically diverse as Cleveland (OH), Chapel Hill (NC), Westerly (RI) and Haines Borough (AK) also set up task forces. Whatcom County in Washington started up a joint county-city task force with Bellingham. The state of Connecticut established the first state-wide 'energy scarcity and sustainability' task force, while the state of Minnesota legislature passed a resolution to prepare a peak oil plan which was ultimately vetoed by the Governor.

Governments abroad have also started acting on peak oil. In the UK, Bristol convened a task force in September, and both Somerset County Council and Nottingham City Council passed resolutions supporting efforts on peak oil (including, in Somerset County Council's case, specific language supporting the growing Transition Towns movement). In Australia, the state of Queensland, Australia released two preliminary reports for what will ultimately be an 'Oil Vulnerability Mitigation Strategy and Action Plan,' and Darebin in Victoria reportedly has plans for a peak oil risk management assessment.

A new US President, and new California legislation

The election of Barack Obama to be the next President is by far the biggest development for urban sustainability in the US. Pundits and politicians alike are now abuzz about green infrastructure, green jobs and other issues that were barely on the radar two months ago. Time will tell if Obama limits his efforts on infrastructure and the economy, or truly pushes for a national energy policy and a national urban policy -- neither of which the US has had for many decades.

Vanishing overpassIf it weren't for the election, two big developments in California would have easily topped our news list instead (yes California is just one state, but in legislation and urban planning it's often both driver and bellwether for the rest of the US). The first is October's Senate Bill 375, the first major law in the country that ties land use development with greenhouse gas emissions, effectively pushing growth away from the suburbs and into urban centers. It's the same goal that the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region has more or less pursued successfully for decades through regional planning, but at a much larger legislative scale, for a much more geographically diverse area, and with a significantly larger budget.

The second development is a less-noticed but nonetheless significant move by the California Building Standards Commission to approve the nation's first statewide green building code. The new rules will mandate that all new construction reduce energy use by 15%, water use by 20% and water for landscaping by 50%.

While both policies will take many years to really bear fruit -- and SB 375 in particular has many details to be worked out -- these and other big efforts like the LA-SF-Sacramento high speed rail network are exactly the right steps to prepare America's most populous state for a future without cheap fossil fuels.

The US starts facing up to its energy problem

Orange Line BRTThe United States has steadfastly ignored its energy gluttony problem since Jimmy Carter's all-too-honest stance on conservation. The recent protracted death of the Hummer may seem the perfect symbol of the new American awakening about energy, but this year's sudden and (even more unexpected) continuing mass shift to public transit is perhaps an even better indication of just how deeply things are changing.

That shift of thinking hasn't come a moment too soon: Most American cities don't have the infrastructure in place to accommodate a massive shift to public transit, bicycling and walking. While scores of cities are now planning as quickly as they can for streetcars, light rail and bus rapid transit, there are still countless policy and funding problems to be solved.

Of course, the biggest economic crisis since World War II will not make things any easier for cities already struggling. Relatively economically healthy cities like Salt Lake City and San Antonio will probably continue to be able to push green-minded planning. But communities facing deep-seated economic problems like Detroit and Buffalo are truly in for a rough ride -- much more so than the struggling ex-urb neighborhoods that have received disproportionate attention thanks to the subprime mortgage debacle.

Are we prepared?

One of the most interesting reports to come out this year was a study and ranking of major US city preparedness for an oil crisis by Warren Karlenzig, author of the well-received How Green Is Your City? sustainability ranking in 2007. Karlenzig's new report, updated in November, looks at factors like public transit usage, land use patterns and dominant heating fuel to determine which cities will fare better in times of oil price volatility and supply shocks. Another interesting report, by the Brookings Institution, looked at carbon footprints of the 100 largest cities.

The widespread attention these studies (and the sustainability-minded indicators they use) have received is long overdue -- the ecological footprint concept has been around for over 15 years, after all. But we still have a lot to learn about what truly makes a modern city sustainable or not. San Francisco and New York scored highest in the oil crisis preparedness study -- but one can easily imagine the problems such large and high-density cities would quickly have if supermarket and garbage trucks couldn't get fuel for even a few days. Honolulu ranked best for carbon footprint, but it owes its very existence to highly oil- and carbon-intensive trans-oceanic air travel.

The way ahead is not obvious for either planners or government officials. Planning and engineering practice is still rooted in a 20th-century mindset that assumes energy --and especially gasoline-- will be readily available and affordable for decades to come. As decades-long trends of both suburbanization and globalization come up against the resource limits of the 21st century, we'll have to move quickly to adjust to the new rules.

One of those new rules was explained nice and succinctly by Bloustein School of Planning (Rutgers University) Dean James Hughes this past June: "Distance matters." If 2008 turns out to be the year that the big post-war economic and development trends finally came to an end, perhaps it will also be the year that we finally stopped pretending that distance didn't matter.

That would be a big shift, indeed. And with 60+ years worth of houses, office buildings, supermarkets, strip malls, big box complexes and airports scattered willy-nilly across metro areas from coast to coast, we'd do well to make 2009 the year we started retrofitting for a world where not only time but also distance is money.


Photo credit: Portland Peak Oil Task Force Meeting by Daniel Lerch
Vanishing overpass by Bill Selak (via
The big bad bendy Orange Line bus by Eleventh Earl of Mar (via


Posted by okalokee on December 11, 2008 - 11:54am

You didn't mention urban gardening or farming, but I think that's another big trend of 2008. I've seen so many articles this year on urban farmers and especially, for some reason, urban chickens!

There was also a smattering of articles a few months ago about high-tech urban farming ideas, things like skyscrapers with 70+ levels of hydroponic veggies. But that sounds more to me like some architect's fantasy than a real trend.

Farm the White House lawn!

Posted by laurel on December 11, 2008 - 4:17pm

You're so right about this trend. The huge popularity of Pollan's books and the unusually high profile of the Farm Bill this year may both have played into growing awareness. Daniel is of course highly concerned with transportation and land use, but we'll definitely be writing about urban ag in the Post Carbon Cities newsletter.


(As a former chicken owner, i'm not at all mystified by their appeal. They eat bugs, make food and fertilizer, and provide hours of entertainment in not too much space. It's no wonder we've had them living with us for millennia.)

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