How have our cities changed in the wake of unexpected events? We can see how in the strategies that were put in place to respond to the 1973 oil crisis (similar to the lockdown caused by Covid-19). A time when metropolitan areas found themselves with cars at a halt, left without power among road signs and lampposts.

History teaches us that many people have had their resilience put to the test in order to overcome an unexpected crisis: resilience is a capacity needed by materials and plants, animals and people, communities and states. When faced with a crisis, it is best to move forward towards a goal of resilience, building a new and functional balance in order to recover from a big and sudden change. For centuries, writers, philosophers, physicists and historians from all over the world have been writing and talking about it. Giacomo Leopardi exalted its importance in 1836, when he wrote “La Ginestra or the flower of the desert”, celebrating the resilience of a plant that grows on the slopes of volcanoes in an arid environment where lava burns everything: yet those intensely scented yellow flowers are always reborn. Here in the poet’s verses, the ability of the flower to resist in a hostile environment becomes a metaphor for the struggle to survive and affirm life.

This principle is well established in Physics, which describes resilience as “the ability of a material to absorb energy elastically when subjected to a load or an impact, before reaching its breaking point”. History reiterates this with authority in the recounting of how men, communities and Nations have demonstrated the ability to cope with extreme situations that were seemingly irremediable breaches of normalcy.

Evidence of resilience in the present and the past

With the pandemic crisis caused by Covid-19, we have witnessed a profound upheaval in our lives and habits. Everyday life has been restructured, as has our surrounding environment. To avoid contagion, we were confined to our homes, leaving cities deserted and silent, empty of cars, traffic and noise. Urban areas have also become resilient, they have changed direction to adapt to this unexpected crisis. But it is not the first time that this phenomenon has occurred in Western history: in 1973 it was not the fault of a mysterious virus, but of an energy crisis due to a sudden increase in the price of crude oil.

Almost half a century ago, the series of events that changed the face of urban districts was a direct consequence of the Arab-Israeli war that took place on Yom Kippur. Between 16 October and 20 October, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Libya decided upon a 70% unilateral increase in the price of a barrel of oil, a cut in production and an embargo against the United States and the allied nations who supported Israel, which was attacked by Egypt and Syria in response to the war of 1967.

The response to the oil crisis created major change in cities

The consequences of the first global energy crisis did not take long to arrive in all the countries affected by the embargo: measures were imposed upon Italian citizens, as they were for many other people from Western nations, in the attempt to contain energy consumption, which greatly affected daily life. 

On 2 December 1973 the Italian government, chaired by Mariano Rumor, established a set of measures in the name of austerity: the first Sunday prohibiting the use of private cars and other unauthorized motor vehicles was put in effect, with a savings of 50 million liters of fuel per day. New speed limits were set and the closing times of shops, public offices, bars, restaurants and cinemas anticipated. Television programs also had to end by 10:45pm. 

Public lighting in inhabited areas had to be reduced by 40 percent and all commercial illuminated signs had to be turned off. For some countries, such as Holland, the oil crisis led to the urban bicycle transport revolution.

The culture of sustainable development is born

Thanks to the oil crisis of 1973, for the first time, newspapers began to talk about sustainable development models, making appeals for energy savings and a new awareness of the search for alternative energies. Unfortunately, this lesson in history did not result in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels: even if it is true that the 1973 crisis acted as an incentive to promote energy efficiency, in OECD countries the consumption of oil was only reduced during the 1975-1982 economic downturn, and then once again started to rise until the end of the last century, far exceeding the pre-crisis figures. Today, the question we are called upon to answer regarding resilience is, almost half a century after the oil crisis of the 1970s, whether we are finally willing to implement the so-called “green change”.

A change that will be able to defend us from the consequences of freezing the economy for systemic risks such as Covid-19 and the effects of climate change.