US Cities in the year 2100: 21 Visions

By Steve Austin

Late at night, I had this vision of typical American cities in the year 2100 – see what you think:

In the year 2100:
1.      The population of most cities is about the same as it was in the early 2000s; stable economies produce a stable population. The great oil shock of the 20teens led to the “last depression” – economic and social complexity was ramped waaaaay back, leaving many people with no choice but to return to their small town roots.  The upshot of that reverse migration was that most rural American places gained population, and they returned to economic and social health.  Many medium and large cities lost a lot of people, which wasn’t a bad thing, as it helped to facilitate “smart decline.”   Those cities that were on the front lines of the “race to renewables” (kinda like the space program for energy), gained lots of new people.
2.      Most medium and large cities are now a collection of villages. Centralized decision making doesn’t work when so many vital issues are hyper localized.  Generally, larger city governments deal primarily with collective water supply, energy harvesting and distribution, and public safety.   Those cities that were more socially, economically, and racially integrated than others were able to avoid most of the turbulence that others experienced during the great transition.
3.      The Commissioner of Water is perhaps the most important position in most places.   In most cities there is no longer the energy to pull water up hundreds of feet and push it scores if not hundreds of miles from rivers and reservoirs, making local water use and conservation vitally important.  Water is harvested in every community.  Every building has a cistern or rain barrels.
4.      The Commissioner of Energy is perhaps the second most important person in the city.  Nearly all available electricity is generated by renewables and all energy is produced locally. The Commissioner of Energy is responsible for managing the smart grid and the installation and maintenance of large generating facilities.  None of this city’s energy comes from carbon.  Energy depletion combined with the historic global agreement to eliminate carbon was responsible.  Fortunately, a new generation of carbon miners – “energy creators” – was trained to harvest the wind and the sun.  Many mining areas got their mojo back after the last mines and wells closed.
5.      Most land-grant universities have gone back to their Agricultural and Mechanical roots, but with a much smaller enrollment.
6.      Every rooftop in the city has solar panels.  The remnants of the tall buildings in downtown and elsewhere are now used to support windmills.  These tall buildings are no longer used as habitable structures due to their huge energy demands as well as the fact that they have been scavenged for useable building materials. See next point:
7.      Most buildings built between 1950 and 2010 have been dismantled.  Their lack of adaptability to the solar economy the prime reason.  These buildings were built with no regard for maximization of sunlight or to utilize prevailing winds for ventilation.  By not being in tune with nature, these buildings required an enormous amount of energy for heating and cooling, energy that just doesn’t exist anymore.  In many cities, hospitals were the worst culprits.  The good news is that everyone leads healthier lifestyles with all the physical activity involved in daily life, and the fact that food is local, fresh, and unprocessed.  Alternative healing has been used for decades.
These modern buildings were taken apart for their component materials and used to create a new generation of small scale, low rise (no more than 3 stories) buildings that work with nature to provide light, ventilation, shade, and buffering. Local schools are established in small buildings within residential areas.  The mega schools of the early 21st century required too much energy, both within the buildings and in the transportation system.
8.      Shopping malls and strip centers are now farms for the most part, either for growing food or for growing power. Ironically, the places dedicated to consumption of crap in the early 21st century are now the largest energy producers in most cities. Land never lost its intrinsic value to produce vital necessities.
9.      Commerce happens everywhere – in homes, on residential streets, and in informal markets that sprung up near housing concentrations.  In these markets, under tents, one can find food, clothing, necessities and frivolities and tasty local food. Every day is market day, which is a prime form of entertainment.
10.   Every suburban home has a set of solar panels, either on the roof or on the ground.  There are no more lawns – grass is way too energy intensive and food and energy production space too valuable.  Large batteries for storing energy reside in the garages where cars once went.  Each home is now lived in by many members of extended families and nearly every piece of land has multiple small dwelling units on it.
11.   Energy is the main job provider – installing, repairing, battery maintenance, teaching, weatherproofing – each provides a good job that can never be outsourced.
12.   Another significant change to most cityscapes:  less trees – a lot less trees. Trees block solar panels and shade vegetable gardens.  Most of the trees on private lots are gone – turns out our great urban forests were luxury items. Trees do still line streets to provide shade for walkers and bikers. So many city parks were barren in the early 21st century because of budget shortfalls – but now parks are packed with trees to help offset the loss in private areas.
13.   Much of the suburban housing that was built from 1990 to 2010 was dismantled for the value of the materials within. The owners of these houses were bought out by the scrap dealers, who then sold the land back to commercial farmers – all in all a very weird transition: farm to suburb to scrap yard and back to farm.  Too bad so much topsoil was removed from those developments.
14.   Biofuels run farm implements and ubiquitous three wheeled utility cycles. Small engine repair is one of the most important jobs in the city.
15.   Bike manufacturing and repair is another key industry.  Many shops make wooden frame bikes using local woods, a sublime blend of high-tech magic, and fine craftsmanship.
16.   Streets are all much narrower now.  The cost of repairing them simply got too high.  Now, most streets are down to one lane, which is shared by bikes and motor scooters.  Walkways have been carved out adjacent to the travel lanes.
17.   Hyrbid buses run on biofuels and electricity. All major city electric bus lanes are flanked by the bike and scooter lanes and walkways. Along these routes are found the environmentally sensitive low rise, but still dense, building areas – a form of transit oriented development.
18.   All private open space in the areas surrounding cities are put to productive uses  –  food, biofuels, fiber, medicine, timber.
19.   A generation of artisans uses local materials to create some of the sought after clothes, shoes, and furniture in every bio-region. At the same time, the re-use economy, stuffed with 50 years of over consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, continues even now to provide useful items.
20.   All streams in most cities have been restored to daylight after years of being underground in storm pipes.  The changed climate brought intense storms that overwhelmed the ability of the aging infrastructure to handle it.  Now, stomwater flows the way nature intended.
21.   My son, who was born in 2002, witnessed much of this exciting century.  To us, the early years seemed like a painful transformation; to him it just seemed like the ways things were meant to be.  His son, who was born in 2030, thrived in the new economy.  His daughter, my great-granddaughter, was born in 2058, and she runs a solar repair business. Her son, my great-great grandson, was born in 2088.  He’s almost a teenager and growing up in a fantastic, independent, resilient city. He loves the fact that he can ride his bike out to the countryside safely, that he can sell his produce at the local market, and that he can count on spending his whole life here, surrounded by his family and friends.
What’s your vision of the future?

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Cancel the crisis: “Energy Boom Dawning in America”

By Steve Austin

In  a powerfully optimistic article by NBC news today, we learn that there is absolutely no need to worry about anything oil related.  In fact, we’ve got enough oil right here in lil’ ole’ US of A to make us energy independent.

Daniel Yergin, oil genius, says that with the way things are going now “the U.S. will largely be able to wean itself off non-North American oil sources within a decade.”

This is all due to our friend, “fracking.” As a result, according to Citigroup, “U.S. oil and gas production is growing so rapidly — and demand dropping so quickly — that in just five years the U.S. may no longer need to import oil from any source but Canada.”  (Oops, why exactly is demand dropping so quickly?  Can’t be price, or else that would mean this oil boom is not sustainable.  Can’t be the fact that most of the economy is in recession.  We better chalk it up to fuel efficient cars.  Yeah, that’s it…)

Why,  there’s so much oil in this country that “the International Energy Agency projects the U.S. could leapfrog Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s biggest oil producer by 2020. IEA sees the U.S. becoming a net oil exporter by 2030.”

So see, there was never any reason to worry that we would have to change anything about our lives.  And climate change?  We’ll who doesn’t like warmer winters?  See, it’s all good.

Read the whole thing here Power Shift: Energy Boom Dawning in America

But… wait.  There’s no mention here of depletion rates.  No mention here of the reason why fracking is suddenly in vogue (hint – it has to do with $100 a barrel oil…)  There’s no analysis of the fact that if the US ever becomes a larger oil producer than Saudi Arabia then it could only mean that their production has plummeted.  That aint good news.   And there is certainly no mention of the mathematics that would prove that the US can continue using 20 million barrels of oil a day for any significant length of time.

In reality all stories like this do is set us up for a grim future.  For once the well runs dry,  and prices zoom, someone will have to be blamed.  Most likely it will be environmentalists.  This will be the 21st century version of the “stabbed in the back” theory that brought Hitler to power in the 1930s.  Not a pretty picture.

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Planning As If

by Steve Austin

We are planning our towns AS IF:
As if
We’ll never grow old
And we were never young
As if
Great times will never end
And yet “I’ll get mine now”
As if
Our houses are only for sleeping
And we need no “third place”
As if
Driving is forever
And we’ll never live locally
As if
We are not heavy handed
And anyway the environment can heal itself
As if
Energy will always be cheap
And we don’t need to consider alternatives
As if
Food comes only from a supermarket
And healthcare comes from a doctor
As if
Respecting our heritage isn’t important
And we don’t need roots
As if
The economy will bring unending prosperity
And there’s no need to question growth
As if
We don’t plan to stay forever
And old buildings are just in the way
As if
We don’t like each other
And only “me” counts
As if
Neighborhoods aren’t important
And conformity and tax deductions are
As if
Beauty doesn’t matter
And no one cares anyway
As if
The fastest buck is the only buck
And long-term investments are losers
As if
Our children will have it better
But is planning “as if” enough?

(What other ways are we planning as if?)

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9 steps to rescue communities from the trench warfare of “economic development”

By Steve Austin

I’ve been thinking about economic development in American communities. I always come back to the positive effects (!) that both peak oil and climate change could have on our local economies.

My key points are: that soon, distance will cost a great deal of money, and that a global price on carbon will penalize polluters and reward efficiency.  Both of these will return jobs to the U.S.

Both spell the end of economic globalization as we’ve known it and a return to the importance of local communities as economic drivers.

I think the much of the economic development discussions in American communities still focuses, wrongly, on thier place in the global economy.

All that does is place communities the mercy of global corporations and the economic forces that do not have our best interests in mind. Most community economic development experts see thier citizens only as fodder for the global corporate workforce, rather than humans. Kinda like the generals of World War 1.

Often the “leaders” of the economic development process in most communities are nothing more than agents for the economic-colonial powers that have taken root in thier communities:  banks, corporations, law firms, carbon fuel corporations, consumer companies, etc. They only think of what they can do to please the corporations, with the hope of gaining some return that benefits our citizens, I guess.

I think they do this, most of them, with the best intentions of helping local people.

But it doesn’t help.

Such a strategy does nothing to ensure that any community is truly sustainable over the long-term. And these discussions never mention the elephants in the room: peak energy and an imperative to reduce carbon use dramatically and quickly.

The answer to both challenges is the same thing: a locally scaled economy. Our commerce must be at the scale of neighborhoods rather than that of the globe. Our food system must be designed to provide for us first. Our educational system needs to respond to what type of learning is really needed in the coming years. Our transportation system must be re-imagined to place transit and human power at the forefront of planning.

This is the rational response to the new realities. Please feel free to share your thoughts.
1. Put local first in every decision made in our communities by supporting locally produced food, energy, products and services, businesses, investments, arts and local media.

2. Build a place based economy. Work to only create jobs that cant be outsourced and that use local materials and talents to create an economy that will last.

3. Reskill our workforce . We need technology training suitable for 21st century manufacturing certainly, but in our lower energy future, other skills will be vital as well. All things food related will be vital – food, growing, storing, preparing. We need to support energy engineers and entrepreneurs – from biofuel makers to battery testers to efficiency experts. We must value round timber builders and potters and chimney sweeps. Education will to change; the notion of everyone going off to college to get a liberal arts degree will disappear.

4. Foster local markets. Create places and networks for local people to sell the things to whcih they’ve added value.

5. Increase local self-reliance and resilience. Safeguard local food and water supply, protect floodways, create local energy, increase energy efficiency, husband local resources of soil, timber, minerals.

6. Improve our places. Plant trees and flowers, create parks, put art on display, fix neglected infrastructure, clean up – give people proof that we are planning to stay.

7. Encourage alternative transportation – make it easy and safe for people to get around our cities on foot and bike. Encourage local shared transportation.

8. Let land use happen. Houses are more than that these days. They are factories, home offices, mail rooms, warehouses, communications centers. Small businesses should not be segregated by zoning from where people live to encourage walking and biking; we shouldn’t have to use a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk.

9. Strengthen our communities. Host more fun communal events. This doesn’t have to be expensive – people love gathering together! And cherish one another – EVERYONE in your community has a stake in making it the best it can be – everyone.

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A Food Manifesto for the Future

By MARK BITTMAN, New York Times

For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.

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11 traits of smart cities

by Steve Austin

Recently there has been a lot of buzz around the term “intelligent cities.”  Smart growth is now so passé.  Instead we are treated to a glimpse of the future where technology will make our cities more intelligent, and thus our lives in them better.  See, we can use our smart phones to find parking spaces! We can have some super computer somewhere monitor our energy use!  We can use facebook to start revolutions!

Seriously, there are a lot of good things happening around the ideas of intelligent or smart cities.

Here are some of my thoughts on what makes a city truly smart:
1.       Smart cities are food and water secure
2.      Smart cities limit their exposure to the global economy
3.      Smart cities invest in and practice inclusive community building
4.      Smart cities put local first:  local economies, local culture, local bio-region
5.      Smart cities are adapting to a changed climate
6.      Smart cities have true mobility choices
7.      Smart cities engage youth early and deeply
8.      Smart cities weave health living into everything
9.      Smart cities develop renewable power sources and produce zero waste
10.   Smart cities value holistic, lifelong learning
11.   Smart cities adapt, reuse, densify, and diversify
I know there are others. Thoughts?

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Local Government in a Time of Peak Oil and Climate Change

By John Kaufmann

In Post Carbon Cities, Daniel Lerch lists five principles to help guide local government planning efforts in the face of peak oil and climate change:

 Deal with transportation and land use (or you may as well stop now). Incorporate peak-oil and climate change considerations into all transportation and land-use aspects of policy-making and infrastructure investment decisions.

 Tackle private energy consumption. Improving government operations is insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem. Create strong incentives and support for innovation, and aggressively engage the business community.

 Attack the problems piece by piece and from many angles. Meet goals with multiple, proven solutions, and enlist the entire community in the effort.

 Plan for fundamental changes—and make fundamental changes happen. Change internalized assumptions about the future availability and affordability of energy.

 Build a sense of community. Strengthen community resilience by encouraging relationship building among citizens, businesses, and government agencies.

To these can be added five principles to guide local government management efforts:

 Don’t expect to find one grand solution. There are no solutions, just intelligent responses—and there will be many little responses that will help communities adapt and muddle through.

 Don’t try to do everything all at once. Focus on a few big issues requiring several years of lead time and issues that are immediate problems. Other issues can be dealt with as they become ripe.

 Consider how energy affects everything and everybody. Government needs to consider how businesses, institutions, and households are affected by high energy prices and energy-supply shortfalls, not just how its own operations are affected. These impacts are significant to the community and the local economy, and will shape what the government needs to do and what it can do.

 Connect the issues. Climate change, peak oil, diminishing water supplies, topsoil loss, biodiversity loss, and most all major challenges of the twenty-first century are ultimately intertwined. Worsening conditions in one area could affect the ability of society to respond in another area. Conversely, there are synergies to be gained by dealing with these challenges in an integrated fashion.

 Expect the unexpected. We must avoid making irreversible commitments based on past experience or current projections, expecting the future to be more of the same. We are entering a period of what is likely to be rapid and nonlinear change. We must reconcile ourselves to the idea that there will be no business as usual anymore. We must be able to adapt and reverse direction as conditions change.

Planning for Crisis
In developing strategies and actions to address these challenges, governments should ask four basic questions:
1. How will peak oil and climate change affect the community? What are the expected impacts, and when will they set in?
2. What can government do to cushion the community against the long-term negative consequences of those impacts?
3. What should government be prepared to do in the case of emergencies (e.g., fuel shortage, fuel price spike, prolonged heat wave, drought, wildfires, flooding, etc.), some of which are inevitable?
4. How will future government activities be funded as economic volatility and prolonged recession keep tax revenues from rising as quickly as in the past?

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