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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
The Global Context - Cities, Climate Change and the Post-Fossil Fuel Transition: A Problem of Complexity
Chris Ryan, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, University of Melbourne
La Pietra Dialogues
September 15, 2012

Two centuries of development based on the exploitation of fossil fuels has left us with legacies we must rapidly transcend. We have cities, built infrastructure and systems of provision of essential services - energy, water, food, transport, shelter, information – with an embedded dependence on large continuous flows of fossil fuel energy. In a remarkably short period that embedded dependency must come to an end, if we are to deal with climate change and the depletion of our finite supply of fossil fuel resources (particularly oil). This requires more than a switch to renewable energy; to avoid the potentially disastrous impacts of global warming, a substantial proportion of the carbon released into the biosphere during the last two centuries must be taken out of circulation. In parallel with this transition we have to manage the vulnerability of cities – with their established systems of provision - to significant shifts in climatic conditions, extreme weather events (drought, floods, very hot days, very cold days) and a rapidly escalating price for oil.

It is easy to see how critical cities will be in this coming period of transformation. More than half the world’s population now resides in cities. The very nature and form of cities amplify their place in the coming ‘post-fossil fuel’ revolution; they currently account for around 75% of global energy demand and 75% of greenhouse gas production. With a rapid rise in the price of fossil fuels,⁠ a shift to renewable, low-consumption energy, with new climate conditions and extreme weather events, there is an real danger that the existing fabric of a city could become inhospitable, maladapted for the bio-physical and cultural needs of its inhabitants.

However cities also have the ability to nourish the very social characteristics that will help us to adapt, to innovate, to transform the conditions for life and well-being. With the protracted and faltering international negotiations on climate action attention has moved to the potential role for ‘sub-national’ institutions, most particularly cities. Cities seem to offer hope that they will be the cohesive and creative force for the development of a post-fossil fuel existence. Much of the vitality necessary for a positive engagement with the challenges of the future can derive from the social and technical dynamism of cities, from the density and diversity of the social interactions of urban life.

Cities will need to transform very rapidly compared to the historical period over which they have been developed; the International Energy Agency now talks of the necessity of ‘radical’ transformation within fifteen to twenty years.

Initiating and supporting such rapid structural and cultural change within existing urban environments and communities will have to be sensitive to the layers of human history that are embedded buildings and urban spaces. The future requires undoing a history of dependence on forms of energy and power that now threaten our existence; it must also involve the building of a culture that celebrates our collective capacity to reflect on the state of nature and human affairs and to transcend those conditions that appear to divert us from pursuing genuine, equitable and sustainable, prosperity. Where such capacities have been demonstrated in previous periods of social and political development, or in the past flowering of cultural and intellectual movements, a contemporary reading of that history can provide a foundation for action to overcome current challenges.

In many older cities those past periods of revolutionary spirit are visibly expressed in the shape (the material form) of the built environment. Most are juxtapositions of historic centres surrounded by more modern peripheries. In the coming period of transformation, services and infrastructure will confront a tension between historic preservation and future-driven innovation and growth. Technical and regulatory limitations on historic sites can inhibit change. This adds another complexity to the challenges such cities confront - to preserve history whist decreasing vulnerability to rapid change in energy systems and the climate; this becomes particularly acute for those cities that are revered globally for their visible record of human history. Tourism, for example, brings a host of specific problems that leave an indelible impact on the urban environment and quality of life.

Historic cities also provide a special vantage point for imagining the future. Built before the use of fossil fuels, when cities were bound by the natural environment they were embedded in, historic cities remind us that the current model of urban development is not inevitable. Technological transformations over the centuries led to a future that past inhabitants could not have imagined. Inspired by them, we must also envisage a future that doesn’t currently seem possible.

These future challenges for cities represents a clear example of a ‘complexity problem’ – the transformation of systems, both physical and cultural, that are so interconnected that it is not possible to work on individual system components in isolation. Designing for resilience and a different energy future has to be approached from a multi-disciplinary perspective; it involves a collective inquiry and an iterative testing of alternative patterns, framing strategies from a ‘multi-vantage’ point with many perspectives brought together in a way that everybody involved can learn. Finally and most critically it means an acceptance of designing with, and for, uncertainty.

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