Stress test for cities

It will be cities that in the coming decades (and partly already now), will have to face people’s problems most directly. Which was my reasoning in my recently published book ‘Post Fossil Life.’ ( in Dutch, later this year in English). To start with Interpersonal problems, as we already see abundantly today. But life in the city is also detached from physical reality, entirely dependent on resources that must be brought from afar, often from across borders that might become insurmountable in a future of shortages. Even in our own country, problems can arise, such as power outages predicted by energy companies that cannot keep up with the transition.

In a city, you are then at the mercy of the gods. Where do you get your food, energy, or water? What if the water pressure drops or it is contaminated, and how do you get energy for heating, lighting, let alone for the elevator to the 20th floor? And even energy for a hospital becomes a problem after a while?

In the city itself, everyone is celebrating urban life, not bothering at all with these basic survival problems or provisions. People are busy with investing, trading, delivering, and with dancing, partying, painting, or acting – all activities that have little to do with the basic necessities of survival. While outside the city, these problems are piling up, the party inside continues, like the orchestra on the Titanic that keeps playing (‘dreaming and dancing’ [1]).

But at the very least, shouldn’t the city government, the municipality, which has a primary responsibility to take care of its residents, be concerned with arranging and maintaining the necessary provisions? How does the municipality ensure that if the power goes out, citizens are assisted immediately? Or if the water is contaminated, at least the drinking water supply for households can continue, or a basic amount of local power is available to keep some streetlights and security systems running?

Cities are not entirely unaware of the threats they face or of the changes coming up, especially climate change. They were recently reminded of this through the floods in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Some cities are developing plans, but progress is slow, and in practice, the old approach continues where cities prefer to stimulate economic growth, despite it being unnecessary as everyone already has work.

There are initiatives such as slow cities, transition towns, and C40. However, these are often not comprehensive and complete, and requiring a considerable amount of time. Bottom-up initiatives also exist, perhaps more successful, but only with the involvement of a small part of the population, such as collective farmer initiatives and energy cooperatives.

At the city level, there is an impressive example concerning energy, namely the town of Güssing in Austria, which has been running on its own renewable energy for 15 years, with various additional benefits. It is also self-sufficient in terms of food and water. It can be done, it shows*.

That is just a rare example. While the problems are rapidly approaching. Some time ago, there were reports that Amsterdam might face power outages. In Belgium, a schedule has already been drawn up indicating which neighborhood, village, or city will be disconnected first in the event of a large-scale power outage, and which one last. This led to a rush on diesel generators, as residents took their own responsibilities, not entirely in line with the transition intentions.

The major power outage in India a few years ago affected 600 million people (!), more than the entire EU, and happened entirely unexpectedly. In some regions, it lasted for months. In this case, the impact on most people was not as significant because they were still largely accustomed to being self-sufficient. That is, productivity and consumption were not as imbalanced as in the industrialized world.

The effects on cities and regions of such interruptions are largely unknown. What happens during such a large-scale blackout as in India? (I can recommend that officials read the novel ‘Blackout’ by Marc Eisberg!) And what if drinking water systems fail after another dry summer? The risks are growing.

A city needs to prepare for that and have a disaster plan, a survival plan. Not just for fire, but also for energy, information, food, water, and material shortages or disasters. To have some insight into the starting position, a city should perform the necessary calculations. Just as banks were subjected to a stress test after the banking crisis, it is time for a stress test for cities/municipalities, but this time before systems fail. That’s why I propose that every city undergo a stress test, exactly like the banks did back then. A stress test in 3 to 4 steps, each step more detailed as the previous step indicates.

A stress test that shows how capable a city is of handling emergencies and for how long, for which sources, and for various scenarios. This is primarily related to the land: land needed for food, water, energy, and (biobased) materials.

Based on the findings in various projects, I come to an initial classification in three levels, and possibly a fourth level concerning the social-administrative aspect, as follows:

  1. The Helicopter Analysis: the starting situation: what is the resource availability per person within municipal borders, what are the city’s own resources and potentials (land!), and what are its needs (basic needs in times of stress)? This already provides an indication.
  2. Vitality: comprehensive supply and demand analysis: what is the input into the (city) system per source and component, what is produced within the city(-region) itself, what is the city’s output (also in waste), and what are the critical components? This indicates how flows can be redirected in case of shortages.
  3. Adaptation Analysis: a comprehensive urban potential study (an initial attempt was made with the ‘Urban Harvest +’) project [2], where everything is mapped out: what is there, and how can we supplement everything to be prepared for scenarios listed below? What stocks can be established (think of water supplies during sieges in the past!), what is the potential that can be developed in the short term, how can pipes be rerouted, how can land (quickly) be cleared for food production, etc.

The whole could be expressed in one figure: how many inhabitants can survive, if all connections and supplies fail, based on existing stocks? And for how long? Of course, residents will have to adapt much lower levels of subsistence at that time, requiring a:

  1. Social Potential Analysis. At such a moment, a lot will have to change very quickly, and it will require living adjustments from people. To what extent is society and people prepared for this? What is a methodology to have measures adopted and implement everything?

Each step requires more research than the previous one but also makes it clearer how things stand. A (limited) example regarding materials was made some time ago based on figures for London [3].

Scenarios There are different scenarios against which the figures could be compared to understand what is possible and what is not:

A: 100% power outage over a certain period: 1 day, 1 week, etc.

B: International boycott around the import or export of certain food items

C: Drinking water network unusable due to contamination or poisoning (terrorist action)

D: Drinking water shortages

E: Oil boycott, all imports stopped (think of the 1980s)

F: A new virus like corona (enough ’toilet paper’*)

G: Combined stress, etc.

And then there are other threats as described by Sievert [4], such as a massive influx of refugees or economic collapse, with people facing financial problems. And in the coming years, a CO2 lockdown is not unthinkable, just like we already have for nitrogen. In that context, I explored two years ago what that means for a municipality, in this case, it was the municipality of Schouwen-Duiveland. The report is available here [5].

What can also help as an example is a stress test/study of the district of Kerkrade West [2] and an exploration of the potential of 70 cities regarding energy, water, and agriculture, as described in the annex of the recent book (the annex is freely available on this website [6]).

In any case, it seems crucial to hold municipalities accountable for their ability to provide relief to residents during times of stress. Because it is certain that such times are coming. And cities will then have a central role.

So, get to work…

* The mayor there started an initiative with some friends at the end of the 1990s to provide the town with renewable energy. The town had 3000 inhabitants but was losing population: the youth moved to cities elsewhere, there was little work. The mayor realized that 6.5 million in energy costs were spent, money that disappeared from the region. He reasoned: if we generate our own energy, then that money stays in the region and stimulates the economy. To cut a long story short: after 15 years, they succeeded: wind, sun, a biomass plant – the whole town was provided with its own renewable energy. X million in energy costs stayed in the region, and after a few years, dozens of businesses had been added, providing 100 jobs.

Visiting Güssing, I asked the mayor, Peter Vadasz, whether this did not come at the expense of food and material provision, for which we also need a transition. It turned out that no hectares of agricultural land were sacrificed for the energy balance, and the town could still provide for its own food, and potentially some material if necessary. Okay, it was an agricultural area, so to some extent, more productive than consumptive, but nevertheless, it can be done.

But Güssing is an exception. Yes, there is also Samso, an island in Denmark, but they have an offshore wind park, which is not representative of the average city.

** This may sound ridiculous; we didn’t suddenly go to the toilet more. But there was indeed a shortage, that is, household toilet paper. Suddenly, everyone stayed at home to use the toilet instead of at work. So, producers faced shortages of toilet paper and had an excess of large industrial rolls. Switching over took a few weeks. A (small) example of adjustments that may be necessary.”

[1] Urban Dreamland:

[2] UH+ and Study Kerkrade West: part A and B, and English summary:

[3] London Exercise:

[4] Resilience – For a new orientation of planning and building, Thomas Sievert, The Planning Review Volume 48, 2012 – Issue 1,


Resilience, issue 4, 2013, information on spatial development, Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs, and Spatial Development,

[5] Schouwen-Duiveland Stress Test (in Dutch) : and

[6] Annex:

Author: ronald rovers