Sustainable Cities™

Peter Newman: Towards the resilient city

Resilience in the city is about lasting and about making it through crises. Peter Newman calls on us to be driven by the hopeful vision of the livable, equitable, resilient places our cities can become. We need to create the next wave of innovation.

Peter Newman responded to the Ecotopedia enquete via e-mail from Perth, Australia, on 2nd August 2008.


…What are the three qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

A sustainable city is one that is reducing its ecological footprint (its resource consumption, land consumption and waste production) whilst simultaneously improving its quality of life (its health, housing, work opportunities and livability).

The three characteristics of a sustainable city are thus:

  • The city recognizes there are real limits to its ecological footprint that it cannot continue to expand its use of energy and water and materials. Its visions and plans must all contain a clear notion of reduction in resource consumption, especially of carbon which must be at least 50% less by 2050.
  • The city sees its innovations in economic and social development to be essential but not divorced from the need to reduce its footprint. Each program must do more for people with less from the earth. This needs to be seen as the basis of the new urban economy, the next wave of innovation, just as previous industrial waves have been defined by cities in their economies and infrastructure.
  • The city has a governance system that rewards sustainability innovation that integrates the contributions from business, community and government, that rejoices in the creative expressions of its artists in expressing sustainability sensitivities, that builds its particular sustainability approaches on the identity and sense of place in the city and communicates it for all other cities to learn from.


…What are the three challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

The three biggest challenges are:

  • Responding to peak oil. The resilience of cities to this challenge will test every part of the economy and community as oil has become in-built into how we make cities work. The vulnerable parts of cities are those that are the most car dependent, without real options within a reasonable travel time budget.
  • Responding to climate change. The need to decarbonize all of the power and transport systems will require considerable innovation in technology and in how we plan cities so they do not need to use as much energy.
  • Responding to its bioregion. Cities need to move from reducing their impact on their bioregion to enhancing it ecologically.


…What are the three most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable?

The three programs that would help create sustainable cities are:

  • A Peak Oil and Climate Change Strategy which can show in detail how to reach 50% less carbon and oil by 2050 within every part of the city's economy, transport and planning system.
  • A Sustainable Households Program which can reach households wherever they are and with individualized programs from trained eco-coaches show how every family can reduce their footprint and improve their health, well being and wealth.
  • A Sustainable Cities Demonstration Program that can show how city centres and suburban centres can be transformed into models of walkability; how TOD/POD/GOD programs (transit oriented development, pedestrian oriented development and green oriented development) can create whole corridors where people do not need a car; how plug-in electric vehicles (bikes, scooters, golf carts, buses and cars) can be linked through a Smart Grid to renewable energy providing the possibility of 100% renewable energy from the vehicle storage system(V2G); how older car dependent suburbs can be greened and renewed; how eco-villages can reclaim scattered housing on the fringes no longer viable due to fuel prices; how biodiversity can be enhanced throughout the city and its region.

Peter Newman and co-authors Tim Beatley and Heather Boyer publish the book 'Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change' in November. The book takes an in-depth look at the challenges facing all cities around the world brought on by peak oil and climate change.


Sustainable Cities is privileged to bring an excerpt from chapter 1

"Resilience in our personal lives is about lasting, about making it through crises, about inner strength and strong physical constitution. Resilience is destroyed by fear, which causes us to panic, reduces our inner resolve, and eventually debilitates our bodies. Resilience is built by hope, which gives us confidence, and inner strengthto face crises. Hope is not blind to the possibility of everything worsening, but is a choice we make about facing challenges and turning them around.

Cities of fear make decisions based on short-term, even panicked, responses; cities of hope plan for the long term with each decision building toward that vision, hopeful that some of the steps will be tipping points that lead to fundamental change. Cities of fear engage in competition as their only driving force, while cities of hope build consensus around cooperation and partnership. Cities of fear see threats everywhere while cities of hope see opportunities to improve in every crisis, including the fossil fuel resource consumption crisis of our times.

This book focuses on the challenges our metropolitan areas face in responding to their increasing carbon footprint and impact on our irreplaceable natural resources. While understanding the implications of our current lifestyle is important, the response should not be driven by fear of collapse, but by the hopeful vision of the livable, equitable, resilient places our cities can become. We want to show there is hope in our cities.

The book takes the dual issues of peak oil and climate change as the key focus and rationale for our need to change. It will describe how the production peak in global oil may already have happened and if not is close at hand due to a combination of physical shortages and political control in vulnerable regions.


For all practical purposes we must adapt our cities to lessen our dependence on petroleum. This is no small task as oil use in every city in the world has grown each year for most of the twentieth century; yet it is within our reach. Global governance is recognizing the implications of climate change and the role of cities and is moving to require all cities to use less and less fossil fuels each year. This is no longer a speculative plea to cities it is becoming a political and legal necessity for all cities to demonstrate.

Few would suggest that creating resilient cities requires just a simple technology change; it must involve change in our cultures, our economies, and our lifestyles. Cities are expressions of these factors. If the changes required in our cities are not acceptable and feasible, then collapse will happen as it is the human capacity of our cities that is ultimately being tested by these challenges. This book tries to show some hope by setting out how we can do this."

The book will be published by Island Press, Washington, USA, in November 2008.

About Peter Newman

PeterNewman_key_MK_D Peter Newman is the Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. In 2001-3, Peter directed the production of Western Australia's Sustainability Strategy in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. It was the first State Sustainability Strategy in the world. In 2004-5, he was a Sustainability Commissioner in Sydney advising the government on planning issues. In 2006/7, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Virginia Charlottesville where he completed two new books, Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change and Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems. In Perth, Peter is best known for his work in saving, reviving and extending the city's rail system. Peter invented the term 'automobile dependence' to describe how we have created cities where we have to drive everywhere. He has been warning cities about preparing for peak oil since he attended Stanford University during the first oil crisis, 30 years ago. He was a Councillor in the City of Fremantle from 1976-80 where he still lives.

Most important publications:

  • Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming automobile dependence (with J. Kenworthy) 1999
  • Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems: Principles and Practices (with Isabella Jennings) 2008
  • Resilient Cities: Responding to peak oil and climate change (with Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer) to be published 29 November 2008

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014