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Re-imagining Cities afterthoughts

"The year 2008 marked the first time in history that a majority of the world's people lives in cities-a percentage projected to rise to 70 percent by 2050" begins the Rockefeller Foundation publication distributed at the Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil conference, sponsored last week at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The gathering of academics and professionals in areas including architecture, land use planning and design, energy, policy, and journalism were a part of the program tasked with addressing the role of urban design in facing "the challenges posed by climate change and diminishing natural resources". The conference opened on a somber note with Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker framing the problem and referencing a recent carbon budget update from the Global Carbon Project that shows that our carbon emissions increased from 2006 to 2007 and are now at the highest concentration in the last 650,000 years. She pointed out that the burden of adaptation to climate change falls disproportionately on the developing world (a focus of the conference) and low-lying coastal areas. David Orr of Oberlin College followed up with an assessment that "everything frozen on the planet is melting except for Dick Cheney's heart." In spite of the gloom and doom theme of the plenary, there was a message and a feeling of hope with the promise of a new administration coming into the White House. Orr was a part of the Climate Action Project, which has created a Presidential climate action plan for the first 100 days of the new administration. "We are going through puberty as a species" said Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times blog. He compared our current situation in addressing climate change as being put in the driver's seat at 50 mph without having finished driver's education. A journalist who has been covering global climate change issues for 25 years, Revkin was one of the most intriguing and thoughtful speakers. In response to questions, he frequently pulled up his blog posts, one of which focused on the meager funding the US government has allocated to energy research. While Ronald Reagan is often blamed as the president who quashed Jimmy Carter's efforts to increase our renewable energy efforts (shown by the ceremonial removal of Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House), in fact no president, including Clinton, provided a significant increase in the energy research budget. A few panelists throughout the day cautioned that change cannot come from the new administration alone, but needs to come from collective individual changes as well. The issues of climate change and oil scarcity are ever more pressing, yet they seldom make the front page as gas prices go down and news of the economy fills the media channels. There remains a significant challenge and opportunity for the Obama administration, for the media, and for individuals. For more information about the conference, please see the blog on The Next American City and check back on the conference website for podcasts of the talks. ---------- Heather Boyer is Island Press's Senior Editor for land use planning and design. She is also co-author of the new book Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.