The Agile City: Building Well-Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change (Book Review)


Photo credit: James Russell/Island Press

There has been a profound change in the green movement over the last five years, the realization that solar panels on the roof and bamboo sheets on the bed are not enough; that where you live matters far more. We've seen a series of books that make this claim, including David Owen's Green Metropolis, Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City, Ken Greenberg's Walking Home and Peter Calthorpe's Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. Now James S. Russell's The Agile City- Building Well-Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change must be added to the canon. Russell, the architecture columnist for Bloomberg News, describes his choice of words.

The word agile appears in this book's title because we must adapt our lives to a world that climate change is altering before our eyes. Clean energy alone is not enough....given the irreversible warming already set in motion, we'll have to keep changing. In other words, we'll need to develop an urban culture of agility.

It is an important choice of a word, with a different meaning than the more commonly used and misused "resilient." It implies flexibility, adaptability, change and action.

Part One looks at some of the reasons our communities are not agile, why we are stuck in this terrible rut of declining cities and suburban sprawl. Russell has the courage to discuss two subjects that are usually guaranteed to make your eyes glaze over, (I know, I have written about them numerous times) - property rights and the real estate development industry, and he makes it interesting. He goes right back to the founding fathers, to Jefferson, who wanted the constitution to promise "life, liberty and property" vs Franklin, who said "private property is a creature of society." Russell writes:

Elevating the status of property as akin to life and liberty wasn't unreasonable when land was about the only way to create and preserve wealth. But as cities grew, land values increasingly depended on external factors such as access to infrastructure... and that meant that the needs of all would inevitably come into more frequent conflict with the desires of individual owners.

So developers can build houses on sea shores that are at risk of washing away, or subdivisions just about wherever they want, and the rest of the citizenry ends up paying for their preservation, their water and sewer and roads. And the government encouraged it, by making home ownership almost mandatory for white middle classes, with mortgage interest deductibility and other incentives that were directed primarily at greenfield single family suburbs.

And what happens when the system crashes, like now? We have the opposite of agility, we have rigor mortis, as people cannot sell their houses, cannot adapt.

Russell continues: After reinventing land ownership and real estate development, we have to reinvent transportation, which does not mean building electric cars to take us 30 miles to the big box store.

we cannot get people out of cars, or reduce their need to drive substantially, until we put in place the alternative infrastructure that does not now exist.

But alas, there is no political will, there is deep distrust of authority, there is a political system that puts too much power in the hands of low density or almost no-density states and districts.

The deeper American problem is the lack of a collective ethos to insist that large-scale problems be addressed.....Government always fails, goes the claim, so we have to limp along with whatever mashup of brain-dead development, fragmented dysfunctional government, and ritualized unchanging interest group battles we've lived with for decades. It is a strangely defeatist attitude for a nation that has long believed that it can do what "they" said couldn't be done.

Finally, Russell gets down to his prescriptions, and they are truly dear to this TreeHugger's heart. He talks of agile buildings that adapt to climate, that "harness nature instead of defy it." Simple tech like shutters, overhangs, cross ventilation. He acknowledges that "the most sensitive architecture can't duplicate the comfort provided by a humming compressor." But it can help.

He argues persuasively for learning from the past:

Perhaps the best argument for sensitive, future focused, low impact design lies, ironically, in our deep and increasing regard for the past.

Russell is full of so many good ideas. He calls for a more creative, more agile way of regulating in a "loose-fit" context. Simple rules. Smart Grids. Green economies. Slow food. But in the end, I am having trouble summarizing the most important recommendations of this book, because there are so many and they are so diverse. Russell acknowledges this, writing:

I've made an economic case for inventing and refining hundreds or thousands of small tactics and technologies rather than placing our bets largely on a few speculative big technologies.

But so many of those small tactics won't add up; Nor will some of the proposed solutions make much difference. I live in a country with a stable banking system and no mortgage deductibility but we still have sprawl, crazy right wing politicians cancelling transit and tearing up bike lanes, a growing property rights movement, and a culture of denial when it comes to climate change and peak oil.

The dictionary definition of agile is "Characterized by quickness, lightness, and ease of movement; nimble." That doesn't sound much like America today. Can this work in a country that is so anti-change that it can't even leave a light bulb efficiency law passed by George Bush on the books? That sees highways as the only viable form of infrastructure investment? Russell has so many wonderful prescriptions, but I fear that they add up to a pill is that just too big to swallow.

Readers can join a live chat with the author on July 21 at 3pm Eastern.
The Agile City is available at a 30% discount to TreeHugger readers. Simply visit Island Press via this link and use the coupon code 2HUG.

Watch these BookHugger chats:
Author David Orr Explains Why Hope is an Imperative
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Author Peter Calthorpe Shares His Vision for Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

The Agile City: Building Well-Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change (Book Review)
There has been a profound change in the green movement over the last five years, the realization that solar panels on the roof and bamboo sheets on the bed are not enough; that where you live matters far more.

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