Cities–too big to fail?

by Mary Logan

Odum, et al., 1995 Zonal Organization of Cities and Environment

Many people have the misguided belief that cities are energy efficient. Cities compared to other environments are often more efficient with respect to transportation, because fuel use actually drops off in city centers due to the availability of mass transit. But the embodied emergy as a whole in the infrastructure, people, and information in cities suggests the opposite. Cities are actually energy hogs, that concentrate energy. In a future of waning energy, are our biggest cities too big to fail? What size city is sustainable?

This post is a follow-up to last week’s post about our dialogue about big cities and descent. Examples are everywhere this week of people projecting their fears on long-deferred retribution by Mother Nature and the need to wield war using our technological tools to maintain our cities. Sandy is evidence of a heating world, with bigger swings in weather and a hurricane one week, a northeaster the next. There have been a flood of victorious articles suggesting that I told you so about climate change.  Even though Sandy was only category 1 or 2 storm, it was over a very broad area with a very high total kinetic energy because of a hot ocean, even very late in hurricane season in a season with many storms. But the impacts of Sandy were complicated by the population density in the northeast. Perhaps The Weather Channel needs to make up a new metric for landfall in complex, urban settings. The more high-tech complexity we have, the more widespread, serious, and long-term the impacts. These scenarios will be increasingly frequent in the future, as we turn the lights out in a room with too many people. Continue reading Cities–too big to fail?