Urban Resilience and Energy

On my 30-minute commute to my office, I often think about energy. The regrettable drive drags on, during which I listen to podcasts about permaculture and the many energy-related stores on the morning news. The cognitive dissonance is thought provoking. One day, while passing the some of the many stip malls that pock the surface of Florida, I thought, What are we going to do with all this concrete? My internal question was quite literal, as if I were planning for a next week when cheap abundant energy is no longer available. It surprised me.

I participated in a recently held webinar by the International Urban Food Network (IUFN 2015) called “Toward a Climate Resilient Urban Food Systems.” The speakers covered the various aspects about the typical urban built environment which are not resilient in the face of flooding, winds, storms, and heatwaves caused by climate change. One of the speakers, Marielle Dubbeling, was from the Resource Centres for Urban Agriculture & Food Security, and she shared case studies from various cities around the world that have implemented urban agriculture and forestry as mitigation responses to the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change (Dubbeling 2014). I imagined permaculture-inspired ponds, berms, swales, green spaces, and rain gardens throughout cities that could soak up floods, filter water, act as windbreaks, and reduce urban heat island effects. Howard Odum (1973, 225) discusses the need to utilize ecosystem services instead of mimic them with technological gadgets because this results in a waste of energy. 

Odum’s statement that “growth promoting policies and structures become an energy liability because their high energy cost is no longer accelerating energy yields,” exemplifies the vision of a future in which concrete becomes a burden on society. We have paved too much of our urban areas due to the main transportation method in the United States being the automobile. Without the ability to drive everywhere on a whim when cheap energy in the form of gasoline is not available, there is no other purpose for the roads that dominate the urban landscape. We are left with non-arable, toxic, heat-collecting, flood-vulnerable tarmac. Quite the liability indeed.

In contrast, creative descent from fossil fuels would prescribe the relocalization of our lifestyles and deem car transportation obsolete. We should convert the many roadways into bike paths, walking paths, energy-efficient mass transit, and arable or wild lands to better adapt to the weather that anthropogenic climate change has inevitably caused. As Odum (1973, 227) concludes, “Use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state.” Odum’s advice is forethinking. Dave Jacke (2005) warns that the social and economic sides of permaculture are the hardest to address and change in our society. How can we promote a culture that is not causing extreme harm to the planet (Jensen and McBay 2009)? We can start by implementing school and community gardens to teach a love of growing food, bring food security, increase green space in urban environments starving for it, and increase overall resilience. 

Fortunately, I observe people naturally responding to green spaces in cities. They want to see trees and other natural features. The fact that urban agriculture projects would increase resilience to climate change, provide food to urban residents, reduce transport costs and infrastructure, improve urban aesthetics, provide shade to cool the city and reduce the need for cooling, accomplish other ecosystem services, and other means to decrease fossil fuel energy consumption in cities makes taking steps to implement green space in the urban environment a very strong case.  

Dubbeling, Marielle. 2014. “Integrating urban and peri-urban agriculture and forestry (UPAF) in city climate change strategies.” RUAF Foundation, June. http://www.ruaf.org/sites/default/files/Final%20report%20Urban%20agriculture%20and%20City%20Climate%20Change%20strategies%20programme%20June%2012014.pdf.

IUFN. 2015. “International Urban Food Network. Accessed November 12. http://www.iufn.org/en/.

Jacke, Dave. 2005. Edible Forest Gardens: Vision and Theory Volume I. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Jensen, Derrick and Aric McBay. 2009. What We Leave Behind. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Odum, Howard T. 1973. “Energy, ecology, and economy.” Ambio Vol. 2, No. 6, Energy in Society: A Special Issue: 220-227.

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