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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Book Review: The Agile City

The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change by James S. Russell
Island Press, 2011
Hardcover, 312 pages

Bloomberg architecture columnist James S. Russell's intriguingly titled book comes on the heels of two titles published by Island Press that focus on urbanism at a time of crisis: Jan Gehl's Cities for People and Peter Calthorpe's Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. Readers interested in those books, like me, will greatly appreciate Russell's efforts to map out ways of making our cities more livable. He takes into account architecture, engineering, and urban design, but he is also thoroughly educated on economics, and this sets his book apart from others, not just the ones above. While this approach shouldn't come as a surprise given his employer, it makes the book a valuable contribution toward finding solutions for cities in the United States, solutions that are common sense and practical, yet still at odds with the prevailing trends that exacerbate our crises.

Russell starts the book by detailing a carbon-neutral building at Yale University, but it's clear he does not advocate single, one-size-fits-all technological fixes, be it in regards to green building, sustainable urbanism, or energy. At a time when people invest faith in alternative energy -- hydrogen, fuel cells, biofuels -- he instead presents a more agile case for "well-being and wealth." Green building plays a part, as does infilling neighborhoods and diversified transportation. Again, in regards to the last, we do not find high-speed rail to be the solution it's been made out to be; it is important, but it needs to be tied to local modes of public transportation and a density of development that supports it. Russell manages to increase the reader's understanding of various solutions by focusing on individual case studies that are situated within larger ecological, economic, and sometimes political contexts. Therefore we learn, for example, about water use and sewage via the Eco Machine at the Omega Institute and the bioswale at the Kresge Foundation.

The basic framework of Russell's book is tripartite: Part 1 focuses on the landscape, its role in climate change, and how we situate ourselves in regards to the landscape; Part 2 presents problems in four areas (real estate, transportation, water, the "megaburbs") with examples that show solutions in the works; Part 3 details Russell's "agile urban futures." This last section is the bread and butter of Russell's argument, as he lays out the common sense and practical solutions in green building, transportation, and community building. Each questions our growth economy and optimistically sees a way forward based on past efforts (the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts) and current ones (the Slow Food and Slow City movements).

While not is always as simple as Russell explains it -- the $10,000 yearly savings from getting rid of a car, for example, doesn't take into account the increased cost of living in the few areas where people can live without a car -- his suggestions point us in the right direction (we need to (re)build communities in a way that people who wish to do so can live without a car). In the end Russell asserts "business-as-usual is simply failing to deliver," be it buildings, neighborhoods, transportation, food, energy, what have you. This book should be read by those interested in going beyond business-as-usual; the practical suggestions are based on excellent examples created on the margins, but hopefully they will soon be the mainstream in a sustainable future of well-being and wealth.

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