After Hurricane Sandy, I emailed friends who live near NYC to check on them. I was surprised when they said they'd lost power but had simply fired up their generators.
It never occurred to me that people would regard a generator as a necessary part of their toolbox. But then I thought, why not? I had a look at Home Depot's site and discovered you can buy one of those things for as little as 500 bucks. It seems like a reasonable price to pay for peace of mind. I looked afresh at those images of people lining up at gas stations.
Two men starting a generator in lower Manhattan.
As we come to accept that we have lost the battle to avoid climate change, our collective attention will turn to thinking about what we can do to protect ourselves in the face of its effects. Events that we might once have regarded as abnormal are likely to happen with greater frequency and force. If what had been once-in-a-century storms start happening every couple of years, then they stop being abnormal and become part of the environment we live in.
Our response to an increasingly hostile environment must be about resilience, a word whose trajectory I predict will follow that of sustainability: It will have increasing currency and power over the next few years before falling victim to everyone and anyone wanting to co-brand themselves as “forward-thinking.”
Still, let's use the word while it still means something. Resilience is about being able to absorb shocks and carry on successfully. A key part of urban resilience is about having systems -- power, telecommunications, water supply, food supply, waste collection -- that continue to work in the face of extreme challenges or, if they stop working, can return to service quickly and effectively.
We have come to expect that centralized urban systems will provide us with the services we need. Over the course of the 20th century, these systems were refined and pared back to function as efficiently as possible. We are now being reminded more and more often that a system designed to work efficiently in benign conditions is not necessarily effective in extreme conditions.
Writing in The New Yorker in January, Eric Klinenberg reviewed how those responsible for New York’s systems could do better at future-proofing the city. But our customary urban systems, with their centralized operations, long logistics chains, and limited redundancy, tend to be challenged by extreme events, regardless of how well we design them. However high we build the barrier, however resistant we make it to seawater intrusion, something will go wrong. The essence of resilience is for us to be effective in recovering.
Part of the answer is for the balance in our urban systems to swing back from efficiency towards redundancy. How do we achieve this? Well, my friends near New York and thousands like them are already doing it: They have a power backup that they control. Of course, their generation capability is pretty rudimentary and relies on the continued availability of gas, but it's reasonably effective for all that. People with photovoltaic systems weren’t so lucky, of course, but in time those systems will be refined to allow off-grid operation.
What else can people do? Water can be collected from roof runoff (indeed, in Melbourne, where I live, water tanks are a required part of any new residential construction), grey water can be recycled instead of being sent for treatment. More food can be produced locally; waste can be converted to energy. All of this presents massive commercial opportunities.
The resilience challenge is not about technological feasibility -- it is about attitude and habits. It is about abandoning the silly assumption that things will be fine and then being surprised when they are not. It is about accepting that extreme events will occur and being prepared.
In my home state, 173 people died on an awful day in 2009 due to bushfires. Many of them had a bushfire survival plan, but they underestimated the violence of what hit. Almost without exception, those who survived said that next time they will leave. That response is about being prepared and realistic in the face of extreme abnormality. We should all be so ready, whatever the threat.
— Andrew Wisdom, Urban Strategist and Director at Distilled Wisdom