Special Report: Peak Oil

Making World Cities Sustainable

Unleashing and channeling the forces of change, after a long period of imposed, uniform and standardized economic and social choices, is a key opportunity for achieving democratic, voluntary and sustainable change.

By Andrew McKillop
Published August 15, 2009

Introduction: Cities And Sustainability

We can be sure that cities, defined as relatively dense and large human settlements, have existed for at least 8,000 years. Uruk for example, probably dating from 5500 BC, extended over at least six square kilometres and probably attained 50,000 to 75,000 population.

Today's population of what remains of Uruk, or Ur, is low and oriented to the vagaries of tourism, archeological visits and the Iraq war. We therefore cannot be sure cities are sustainable, if we extend this adjective to mean 'permanent' or 'very long lasting'. Ancient cities, we can say, started with small populations by modern standards, then downsized even further in the fullness of time!

Both the terms 'city' and 'sustainable' are in fact complex, if apparently simple. Cities of more than one million population, for example, only exist since the late 18th Century. Ancient or traditional cities never attained more than about 100,000 population. Ancient or traditional cities, such as the centers of many old European, Asian and African cities today, were very high density, unsuited to car traffic, non-industrial, often highly race, language or religion-sorted, often had special and symbolic cultural or ritual social functions, and so on. Their economic role was sometimes weak; in other words, many ancient cities had no primordial economic function.

We can ask: what is the relation of these traditional or ancient cities to giant cities of today's global economy? Another question we can ask: What is the relation of today's global economy to sustainability?

Sustainability to political deciders, business leaders, journalists, and celebrity communicators seems to mean a new crusade to develop soft energy, build millions of electric cars, and throw away a little less trash than previous, while worrying in leisure time about polar bears in the melting Arctic. Opinion polls on the subject of sustainability yield different results, starting with the simplest possible, and public knowledge of the sustainability issue has moved ahead fast in the past few years.

Polls in different countries yield the following responses: Sustainability is that which lasts a long time, tends to be autonomous, has a degree of social responsibility, and is able to work with natural ecosystems and the environment.

All these popular responses to the question 'What is Sustainability?' tend to exclude economic growth, we can note, with economic sustainability itself drawing a long list of component issues and concerns from opinion poll respondants.

The global economy means growth, but economic growth itself is now an endangered species, simply because of its previous excess, rather than success. Being an endangered species is, however, nothing special in an era of mass extinctions, like today, an era many scientists call the 6th Mass Extinction. This is unlike previous mass extinctions in geological history because it is man-made and because species are being lost, that is wiped out by human beings at the fantastic rate of about 30,000 per year.

Back-ofthe-envelope calculations on a long, and increasing list of critical basic resources, from energy, water and food through to lithium metal and soil resources, show that conventional or 'classic' economic growth is for the least fragile and unsustainable. In other words, conventional economic growth does not and cannot last a long time, and does harm the environment.

One particularly easy back-of-the-envelope calculation is what oil supply would be needed for China and India to achieve or attain average OECD oil consumption rates, of about 14 barrels per person per year in 2008. In China's case its present oil demand would need to expand more than five times, and India's current oil demand would increase by nine times. This is entirely impossible.

The Challenge Of Growth

Other kinds of growth - population growth, itself a 'pump' of economic growth for many economists and political deciders - concern us first and most when treating the subject of Cities and Sustainability. Using data from UN agencies and major NGOs, the world's urban populations are forecast to grow fast to 2030 and beyond. Growing at about 55 million persons a year from a current total of around three Billion, by 2030 world cities will be home to about 60% to 63% of the world's forecast population of 7.75 Bn.

In other words world cities are forecast to grow by around 1500 million in 20 years. This is three times the total population of the European Union's 27 member countries today, and equivalent to increasing world urban population by about 175 new New Yorks, or 125 new Tokyos or 125 new Bombays, in 20 years.

Apart from but related to increasing population size, economic growth and rising energy intensity of the economy, world cities for at least the last 50-100 years are consistently and quite rapidly increasing their geographic size, that is tending to fall in average density.

Other factors including the physical, administrative, economic or other definitions of a city's exact area affect this conclusion. This process of greater size and greater area easily leads to cities becoming 'predatory' on their hinterlands or even large regional and international areas, in terms of resource demand per capita and urbanization's impacts on local and regional ecosystems.

Depending on density and type of urbanisation, whether hi-tech and resource intensive, or not, the sustainability of an urban area can be forecast.

To be sure, increasing urban population size and geographic area is a historical process but as we already noted above, it is not possible to prove the sustainability of historical or traditional large cities. One interim conclusion is that long-term sustainability of today's great cities, and those being built in the coming few decades is even more questionable. Analysis of city sustainability notably includes the criteria of geographical coverage or areal density, a key factor setting the carbon and environment footprints of cities and their regions.

A quick impression of where the world's urban areas are located, and their physical as well as functional interrelation and interdependence is given by night sky light pollution mapping. This clearly shows, in a negative way, the vast potentials for catch-up urban growth in Africa and Latin America. It also clearly shows the extreme energy intensity, and regional population density of today's urban systems in Europe, Eastern USA, and to a lower extent West Asia and India.

Functional and physical globalisation of world cities is most simply traced to cheap energy and ever faster, higher volume transport and communication systems. This process, certainly for the last 50 years or more, tends to erase the formerly 'classic' rank-size relations of cities that are described in many urban studies, and are essentially historic or traditional relations.

The growth of what we can call 'undifferentiated' urban-type mass settlements, is certainly a worldwide phenomenon.

Dangerous Cities

The widely recognized threat of runaway, chaotic urban growth spilling across formerly productive land and coastal areas can be summarized as the fear that the world's present overloaded, congested and polluted urban systems will simply go on growing, like an untreated cancer.

This threat is recognized. Numerous international projects and programs exist for counteracting unplanned and counterproductive urban growth. This especially concerns low income countries where chaotic urban growth tends only to produce more run-down mega slums, the breeding ground not only of misery and disease, and global terrorism, but also of lose-lose paradigms for urban and national economic change, through draining scarce resources to central city urbanism.

Effort directed at mitigating slum growth is however contradicted and opposed by the global economy and its growth paradigm. The global economy accelerates urban migration, or the depopulation of rural areas. Urban migration is only partly a 'pull' phenomenon; the 'push' factors include conventional energy and resource intensive development of farming and food production.

Both the urban pull of employment in modern sector activities, and the rural push of conventional agribusiness, are only sustainable as long as economic growth continues. When growth breaks down for any reason, it is urban areas that first show the effects.

Some historians describe the second World War, in Europe, as a European urban civil war generated by economic crisis and mass unemployment. As we know, this context was a fertile breeding ground for political extremism, targeting national and ethnic minorities, and feeding off the social stress caused by long-term economic recession. Most historians identify the Great Depression as at least a major or even root cause of European totalitarianism, race politics, and the breakout of World War 2.

About 53% of world population is now urban, and the global economy sets urban norms, aspirations and values for all peoples. In lower income and emerging economies this accentuates the urban-rural divide, as shown by typical oil intensity of rural versus urban areas. In low income African states, rural populations often consume less than 0.75 barrel of oil and oil products per person each year, while their urban counterparts need 2 barrels per year or more.

Similar disparities exist for electricity demand, energy intense food products and construction materials. Under conditions of low economic growth and continuing demographic expansion we can expect, or fear that urban focus economic, social and political tensions will be the flashpoint for any future world scale armed conflicts that can be triggered by global economic recession. Due to cumulative and converging economic, energy and environment crises we can go on to make a simple conclusion.

Conflict in our cities is a rising real world threat. This threat can only get worse if we lose the present opportunity, the social and political momentum for making world cities more sustainable, more resilient and perhaps more autonomous. The risk is made stronger by the fragile economic outlook, again due to the real world context of converging and intensifying economic, energy, climate and environmental adjustment challenges.

City States And Urban Culture

In Ancient Greece, probably before 1200 BC, city-type dense nucleated settlements with populations in the thousands, built on a grid-iron rectangular plan existed, but these were abandoned for unknown reasons for 400 or 500 years in what are sometimes called the Greek Dark Ages. However, population growth and change of technology continued, and deeply changed the structure of society.

Cities returned for good, as the previous tribal organization of a gathering and hunting society was forced to give way to a society based on domestication of animals and agriculture, firstly in Ionia, then across the E Mediterranean and W Asia.

It is tempting to suggest, other than easy economic theories, that cultural and social adaptation to city living was partly responsible for this half-millenium delay. In any case, this phase was followed by full development of an urban economy and stratified society of administrators, soldiers, merchants and slaves, economically linked by transport and trade to large areas of West Asia and East Europe.

Culturally, the previous totemic unity of worldview started breaking into separate categories, like religion, art, philosophy and technology, also reflecting social segmentation by class. When the division of labor had already reached a high level of development, by the 5thC BC, its interpretation became a basic theme, either directly or indirectly, of theater, entertainment and philosophy.

One example of this was Heraclitus, who claimed each thing, including cities has a special "essence," with its own place in the cosmic system. Many other Greek philosophers, for example Thucydides, went on to set out their views on the ideal polis, or city state.

Ancient China, in roughly the same time period (Confucius and Socrates being almost exactly contemporary, about 500BC) moved towards very similar concepts, with direct land use and city design implications. Beijing's earliest imperial or Forbidden City dates from the Qi dynasty of about 220 BC, but like early Athens was of minor importance relative to other city states of the time.

In a very ancient and special form of bioclimatic design, Beijing's street plan, building orientation and fenestration complied with Chinese belief that the north was a place of bad omens, full of deserts with scorching heat during the summer and freezing cold during the winter. Thus all palaces, temples, and homes faced south, the direction of good omens and smiling fortune.

In the Chinese case the "whole man", citizen of a polis, came to exemplify the same ideals as those of the Greek poleis. Citizens, a term excluding at least 60%-75% of city inhabitants we should note, ideally existed in a fusion of state and society. The question whether the state was separate from society or not, was basically irrelevant to either Ancient Chinese or Ancient Greeks.

We could say that city, state, nation and citizen were almost identical concepts, in the ideal case described by Ancient Chinese and by Ancient Greeks as the most harmonious.

The modern term for the often contradictory views and advice from Greek philosophers is direct democracy. Without any exaggeration at all we can call the 1918-1919 Spartakist movement of Germany, ending in massive loss of life, an attempt to apply direct democracy of the type idealised by Greek or Chinese philosophers, and itself named for Spartacus. Marxist states since 1923 have usually claimed to represent direct democracy. Defenders of the greed-is-good New Economy claim that spending power democracy is also direct, and the most effective way for enlightened, or at least greedy rulers to stay in power.

Conflict for political power is probably at least as old as any city, making treatement of the subject delicate, in the real world. Calls for more democratic and local decision making are nearly always born in cities. One form of urban democracy is City Mayor status, power and privilege for usually elected officials who in some cases can, if they want, make unique and powerful decisions on shifting their city towards Sustainability.

Democracy, however, not only brings up the question of decision making in all areas of urban life, but also the thorny questions of the nation versus its cities, and the city's power or rights to usurp national resources. After that, we have rich world-poor world conflict over resources, certainly incorporated and included in OECD and Chindia (China + India) policy stances on who is responsible for 'historical' climate change, and who must act first and cut most in the area of CO2 emissions reduction.

Interlinked Challenges

The various and numerous challenges to moving cities towards sustainability, some of which are described above, are inter-linked and all are underlined by the current global economic recession. The basic question is how do we finance and fund the break with traditional or conventional economic and financial ways of dong things, to carry out urban transition to sustainability?

To be sure, many people think or believe the present economic crisis was triggered by "purely financial" causes, specially the US subprime crisis of 2007. This ignores the clear role of energy and food commodity price rises in triggering or intensifying economic slump. Basically, the subprime financial business model needed two-only conditions to survive and thrive: economic growth, and consumer revenues held up by low energy prices and low food prices.

With those conditions guaranteed, US consumers would have had the disposable income to pay back their subprime loans, even as monthly repayments sums were racked up. When food and energy prices rose sharply in 2005-2008, due to converging long-term environment, climate, resource and geological factors and limits, and financial speculation, this radically changed those wishlist conditions.

What happened next is economic history. In the new context, US homebuyers had less ability to bear their rising monthly loan repayments. Economic growth trended lower, unemployment increased. As we know, there was a quick knock-on to the financial pyramid of inter-related and inter-dependent financial instruments such as interest rate derivatives, credit default swaps and currency swaps. The rout soon extended right across the bank, insurance and financial services sector.

Recent estimates by the USA's "troubled assets" purchase program administrators, using borrowed and printed government funds to shore up the bank, finance and insurance sector, are that up to $23.7 Trillion USD may be needed for the TARP.

This, we can note, is well above one-third of world total GDP for the whole year 2008, using IMF definitions of the value of world economic activity. As we also know, the tightly knit global financial system responded quickly to the US economy's domino collapse of what economists call "confidence". This loss of confidence and massive selling of almost worthless 'securities' affected private investment banks, many high street retail banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and other financial sector 'players', before impacting all credit dependent sectors of the economy, specially the car and housebuilding industry.

The net result is the present, very classic and global economic recession, described by the IMF as the worst-ever global economic slump since 1945. Real economy indicators including world trade, world exports, shipping indexes, steel production, cement production, car manufacturing, and so on, indicate severe if declining recession.

For energy indicators, the IEA forecasts that 2009 will likely see the first-ever decline in world electricity consumption since 1945. Electricity demand in 2009 will probably be about 4.5% below 2008. World oil demand contracted by about 3.5% or around 3 Mbd (million barrels a day) in 2009. World natural gas demand has also ceased to grow, instead of rising by about 5% a year. Coal and uranium demand is also affected, with demand growth in 2009 falling far below previous growth rates of more than 6% a year.

The knock on to urban development includes sharp reductions of investment in infrastructure and the freezing or abandon of several high cost and prestigious "ecological" new city and in-city development projects, in countries including Russia, China and the GCC countries. These we can note, often have extreme high investment costs per urban inhabitant.

End Of An Era

This could be the end of an era we can call 'The Petro Keynesian Growth Interval', a swan song to all previous models of resource crunching, oil burning, climate changing, environmentally predatory economic growth. Back-of-envelope calculations of what would, in theory, be needed for full globalisation of all urban populations, to achieve present OECD average per capita consumption rates of energy, food, water, metals and minerals, and building materials simply indicates one bottom line: it is not possible.

One basic result of this impossibility, which accepts the reality of resource, environment and climate limits, is the fast emerging theme of "Cleantech and Sustainability". This applies right across the economy and society, and to urban systems. This theme is overdue for new resource efficient operation, and restructuring of present cities, the rational planning of new cities, and organized engagement in sustainable urban and urban regional expansion.

As we know, among the key concepts driving interest in "Cleantech and Sustainability" we find a recurring focus on resource economizing. This in turn generates a simple slogan with profound real world implications: Use less and use better.

To be sure, life goes on. Economic indicators may paint a somber picture of global economic downturn, but growth goes on in other areas. Using data from FAO, other UN agencies and major international NGOs, the number of underfed and starving persons in the world grew by about 75 million or more than 9% in the year to October 2008, to reach 925 million, despite a temporary trimming of world food prices due to good harvests and cheaper oil, in 2008.

By an interesting coincidence, the world car fleet, over 98% oil fuelled, grew to about 925 million units in 2008, but its annual growth was only 55 million - far below the yearly increment of starving persons in the new globalised economy. According to MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) about three million children below five years age die each year from simple starvation and disease linked with poverty and untreated water.

This annual death rate is about equal to 30 times the maximum populations ever attained in the world's most ancient cities, such as Uruk, Akkad, Nippur or Thebes, which are estimated by most experts to have not exceeded 100,000 population before about 900 BC.

As already noted above, demographic growth and cheap energy has enabled both the growth of city population sizes, and their geographic area. Transport is a key to city growth, and to restructuring cities for resource efficient, sustainable operation. Electric cars and vehicles (EVs) are now almost a mantra for the world's car industry and government planners, sometimes described as an epochal, do-or-die choice for the car industry - but getting to the EV future from the oil fired present is going to need a lot more than words, and massive amounts of lithium metal.

Restructuring urban transport and transit systems is likely a much more efficient and productive option for addressing the basic need for making cities more sustainable, while noting that other resource problems will jump to the head of the list. These start with water supplies and feeding both the present, and future world population.

Basic Needs

Any problem concerning world food production and feeding our cities also concerns water. Water is a key natural resource and economic product, a basic part of any plan or program for urban sustainability. Learning to use less water in agriculture, and in our cities is however going to be relatively easy - because Nature will help with this task. Incremental water supplies are steadily increasing in cost, and are unable to keep pace with the combined onslaught of food production, urban expansion, consumer lifestyle choices, and the pincer movement of rising energy prices and climate change.

The only bottom line is higher water prices, and forced cuts in consumption.

Water supply problems are nothing new to low income farmers, societies and nations. In a large and growing number of lower income countries and their urban areas, water scarcity continues to increase irrespective of recession or economic growth. As we noted above, there are converging and self-reinforcing reasons for of this. In many cases the bottom line is stark: we now have a permanent struggle for water supply between growing cities, and water for the agriculture to feed those cities. Both need more water but supply is hard to increase, or in some cases decreasing.

This paradigm and basic conflict also applies to urban energy supply. As noted above, urbanisation in low income and emerging countries leads to an almost stepwise increase in per capita energy and resource needs. When we take the OECD urban and suburban growth process, and typical per capita resource demands, this model is completely opposed to actual, and emerging resource supply constraints, over and above any voluntary or forced cutting of fossil energy burn to limit climate change or improve national security.

Another basic need is therefore identified. This is the culture change needed to accept that current trends, processes and structures are not adapted to a sustainable future. All sustainable future models are by necessity obliged to focus the utilitarian satisfaction of basic needs, before addressing other urban aspirations, notably in the cultural and political domains that cities are created for to satisfy, or attempt to satisfy.

Energy Limits

It is very easy to find data on average per capita energy demand for urbanised areas - always higher than national averages including rural areas. This author has described the real and growing energy limits we face for over 35 years. Peak Oil is no longer a whipping boy theme for denial advocates blindly defending business as usual, but is well documented and fully described.

The near-term reality of Peak Oil probably accentuates the rush of world political and business leaders to promote "clean energy", usually under the fig leaf of loud concern for climate change events that will probably happen by 2035 and after. Climate change from land use change and burning fossil fuels are however now recognized as totally interrelated. The near-term prospect for world traded energy prices, we can note, can only become more volatile, extreme and opaque as we move off the current "peak oil plateau" and start losing annual average supply capacity.

In turn, this could or might again lead to attempts at carrying one more, or one last regime change experiment, on Iran. On this subject we can only note that attempts at Iran regime change would be catastrophic for keeping a lid on oil prices. Reason will, we hope, prevail as an intensification of moves towards the sustainable economy and society.

What we find in fact is that "green energy" supply, and cutting energy demand is now the only long term energy management solution. In urban areas, we will find that using less energy, water and other limited resources will in most places be easier, often much easier than finding supply side solutions.

The real solution to declining fossil energy supplies, to be sure, is a global energy transition plan operated at multilateral level, with new and powerful institutions such as an International Energy Fund (modeled on the IMF), and an institution controlling the production, supply and price of all fossil fuels, partly modeled on the current IEA of the OECD group, of mostly oil-importing countries.

I have many times described this sane person's response to coming oil shortage. Energy underlines linkage. We can prove this by checking the link between biofuels and water. This linkage is another simple reason these fuels are now close to gimmick status in world energy terms. Taking the example of maize-based bioethanol car fuel in the USA, producing one barrel of this fuel needs about 240 000 litres (240 tons) of water, with a very clear knock on to food prices energy yield or energy return against the energy used to produce the biofuels based on food crops, is low. Land use change for producing biofuels, for example in the case of Indonesian palm oil biodiesel, can release so much CO2 it totally swamps any reduction in CO2 emissions from using the biofuels instead of petroleum based fuel.

What we find is simple: Water, energy and food are basic building blocks of civilization. This applies directly to cities. Adding transport, we arrive at a shortlist of building blocks for sustainable cities, that is sustainable supply and efficient use of energy, food, water and transport.

Efficient Resource Allocation

The future sustainable city and its urban area, like the future sustainable economy will feature efficient resource allocation. This is a lot easier to define than what we find on the subject in New Economy text books, where resource exhaustion is often described as a "creative opportunity" for developing new resources, and depleting them while casually ignoring "externalities" such as long-term destruction of the environment and natural living systems. Efficient resource allocation means finely adjusting sustainable supply to reasoned and sustainable demand.

This cannot only or exclusively be operated through and by the economic system. It implies social and community participation in the decision making process - which is made easier by IT communications and the Internet Social Networks (ISN).

How we improve resource utilisation at city level will surely need improved communications, and also decentralisation of economic decisions, and real world democratisation of the economic system - which in theory is not only possible but perhaps easy. Efficient resource allocation is in fact one basic definition of what is called "Cleantech", for Clean Technologies.

Demand for sustainable energy and resources is triggered and reinforced by the pressing and urgent need to substitute and replace oil, because of geological depletion of world oil reserves, as well as to limit CO2 emissions. While climate change is a long-term crisis, a poisoned legacy for generations of the 22nd Century, Peak Oil concerns the period starting right now in 2009.

As Matt Simmons likes to say, attempting to maintain current global oil and gas supplies could cost as much as #100 Trillion USD in the 20-year period 2009-2030. IEA estimates are for oil and gas sector spending needs attaining about $1 Trillion USD a year by 2015. Since these amounts of spending are totally impossible, neither Simmons or the IEA adds, we have to get used to world oil and gas supplies declining - rather fast for oil from 2010-2011.

Actual net losses of world oil export supply, after new projects, upgrades, remedial investing to stem losses at the scale forecast by the IEA, massive increase in synthetic tarsand oil production despite its vast CO2 emissions, and so on, may attain 2.5 Mbd lost each year from next year, 2010. This is about equal to current total oil import needs of Germany or South Korea, we can note.

We therefore have no problem repeating that sustainable cities of the very near-term future will be operated with increasing attention to the new paradigm: Use less and use better, focus Demand Side Management (DSM), while also developing and deploying non-fossil energy sources and sustainable supplies of water and food. E can say that a key slogan is: "Negawatts not Megawatts".

Urban Energy Transition

Energy Transition to renewable and alternate energy is now not only the target of Cleantech fund promoters, but also world political and legislative deciders, Davos Forum business leaders, and citizen action groups round the world. Energy saving particularly concerns existing cities, not drawing board new developments. Habitat and buildings take about 40% of all energy, in OECD countries. In per capita oil demand terms this is about 5.75 barrels a year, over one-half of which is for personal transport.

Also in OECD cities, around 10% of all electricity demand is wasted on advertising and publicity lighting operated 24 hours a day "for economic reasons", for "cultural" reasons, or even for "security" reasons. Weekend and night-time lighting of unoccupied high rise office blocks in city centres is another example of the "cultural need" to waste energy. Turning off useless city lighting, we can show with a few clear figures, will yield a lot more CO2 reduction than shifting to halogen based hi-tech light bulbs.

It is comforting to know wind electric power might provide 30% of world electricity by 2030, but today it supplies about 1.5% even if its share is growing fast. In today's real world, close to 50% of real electricity comes from coal. Reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning needs urgent attention to coal burning, which is only just behind oil in world total energy supply. As oil fades out, or gets too expensive, it is coal and natural gas that fill the gap, making it necessary to first cap their growth, and pay urgent attention to reducing waste and loss.

For natural gas, waste in production and transport, both by pipeline and LNG carrier ships, is truly vast. Flared and lost gas at oil wells round the world is equivalent in quantity to more than a third of Europe's total gas burn. Gas wasted at gas wells, in pipelines and LNG shipping is probably as much again. World coal losses are even more impressive: about 150 - 200 million tons a year, uselessly burning and emitting CO2, other greenhouse gases, mercury, other heavy metals, and radionuclides in abandoned mines and coal spoil tips.

In city contexts of high to medium population density we find excellent potentials for both DSM (energy saving) and efficient supply of heat-and-power. Significant development of these potentials is moving ahead in many countries, with additonal great potential for 'full value chain' capture, that is systematic energy demand cuts, and replacement of fossil by renewable energy, throughout the nexus of habitat-place of work-food-transport.


The sustainability agenda is presently linked to global economic crisis, which as noted above was not only or entirely due to traders and their finance sector friends betting other peoples' money in the 24-hours-a-day casino of world financial markets. The economic crisis is now increasingly described as structural and long cyclic. One reason for this 'structurality' is becoming accepted: unsustainable economic and social models tend to be fragile and unpredictable.

However, even in recession, we find that due to their urban, economic and social infrastructures, the mostly slow- growth or no-growth OECD economies continue needing huge quantities of oil, gas and coal, and continue polluting their land and sea environments.

Changing this to achieve Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges we face. Starting with urban food supplies, we can note that Japan, Holland and England, the three OECD countries with the most oil and energy intensive agriculture (reaching an astounding 88 GJ or over 14 barrels for each hectare of rice, per year, in Japan!) are also the most densely populated. High population density reinforces a supposed "no choice" paradigm for agriculture to feed city populations.

Yet we also know that dense urban areas are the most energy efficient - depending on their economic structure and social expectations. This creative duality or apparent opposition in fact shows one clear avenue for making our cities sustainable, by maintaining high density 'islands' while achieving sustainable interstitial urban regions.

We know today that petro-and-pesticide farming is totally unsustainable. We know that massive car ownership in cities is not sustainable. Whether economic crisis or not, we will find climate change goes on under this "no choice" model, resources will go on being depleted, and biodiversity will continue to be lost. Transition to the sustainable model is not only the best solution but will soon be the obligatory No Alternative.

This long-term "latent crisis" of adjustment to new imperatives and transition to sustainability is in fact only intensified by the global economic slump, but this can aggravate the transition process. Many examples exist. Economic investment in urban services like transport, health and social housing, and infrastructure investing, have tended to fall quite fast in most countries since 2008, both in the OECD region and in nonOECD countries.

Contraction rates are often 25% or more, but even if this slows change, the drivers for transition which were there before the economic recession, will in no way disappear, in fact the reverse. In particular we can note, new forms and types of urban infrastructures are critical to achieving sustainability, and in some cases these new infrastructures will not, and cannot be low cost.

The Way Ahead

We have to accept that current economic models, processes, policies and solutions do not apply to the transition imperative, including urban transition.

Plenty of persons focus on, and describe only the climate change threat as the worst-ever challenge faced by civilization. Unfortunately, the list of other, sometimes related and converging, but also unrelated crises is long. Since urban societies are growing everywhere, and cities are generally considered the "hearths of human culture", and surely the location of national administrators and financial deciders, it is right to pioneer change for sustainability with alternative and sustainable economic solutions in our cities.

Another reason for this is the cultural, as well as social dimension of transition to sustainability. Using less, but for the same social or economic result, is easier when there is culture change. To some, this culture change is simply "going backwards in time", but in fact this ignores the inherited and structural changes occurring both in the economy and in society and culture. A really simple example can be given: if a city authority stops building large numbers of car parking spaces and urban highways, and limits urban car ownership, the authority will have more to spend on sustainable urban mass transit and community transport solutions.

We are in fact moving forward to a context of diversity, innovation and ingenuity. Unleashing and channeling the forces of change, after a long period of imposed, uniform and standardized economic and social choices, is a key opportunity for achieving democratic, voluntary and sustainable change.

In other words we have many different outlooks for urban transition. There will be different perspectives for resource and energy supply substitution, versus cutting down and cutting out through using less energy and resources in better ways. This fact is at last beginning to be recognized among the most wasteful users of the world's energy and natural resources, not only the US but also for example in the European Union plan of "3 x 20% by 2020".

This was voted by the EU council of ministers in Dec 2008 and targets a cut in total energy demand of the EU by 20% relative to 2005 demand, plus a 20% cut in CO2 emissions, and 20% of EU energy coming from renewable sources, by 2020. The urban focus is clear in this program. For several lower income EU countries this target is already a challenge, recognized in various special funding measures and regulatory waivers being negotiated, for this program. Here again, we will find that transition to sustainability, including sustainable urbanism, will not be the same for everybody.


To be sure, one size will not fit everybody. After the tunnel effect on options, values and choices dictated by the Global Economy interval that we can place at about 1985-2005, we are moving fast towards a new era featuring a swath of options and strategies. All will however include the key basic target of Sustainability. Our cities, already home to more than one-half of Humanity, will be featured in these multiple transitions.

Knowing where we have to go is not the same as wanting to go somewhere we saw in a dream - the first delivers the means by which the second is possible. Forgetting real world limits and the complexity of Nature was the basic fault of decision making and policy through the last 20 years or so. Today, time is short and needs are pressing - we will therefore move fast, sometimes pushed and forced by events.

The challenges are almost open ended, meaning the need for dialogue, debate, discussion and public information is also open ended. Sustainable cities will be 24-hour-a-day labs and education tools for the long transition that is signaled by meetings like the December Istanbul EcoCity Summit.

Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. These include the Canada Science Council, the ILO, European Commission, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and South Pacific, and the World Bank. He is a founding member of the Asian chapter of the International Association of Energy Economics. He is also the editor, with Sheila Newman, of The Final Energy Crisis (Pluto Press, 2005).


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