The Agile City
6 x 9
6 x 9
In a very short time America has realized that global warming poses real challenges to the nation's future. The Agile City engages the fundamental question: what to do about it?
Journalist and urban analyst James S. Russell argues that we'll more quickly slow global warming-and blunt its effects-by retrofitting cities, suburbs, and towns. The Agile City shows that change undertaken at the building and community level can reach carbon-reduction goals rapidly.
Adapting buildings (39 percent of greenhouse-gas emission) and communities (slashing the 33 percent of transportation related emissions) offers numerous other benefits that tax gimmicks and massive alternative-energy investments can't match.
Rapidly improving building techniques can readily cut carbon emissions by half, and some can get to zero. These cuts can be affordably achieved in the windshield-shattering heat of the desert and the bone-chilling cold of the north. Intelligently designing our towns could reduce marathon commutes and child chauffeuring to a few miles or eliminate it entirely. Agility, Russell argues, also means learning to adapt to the effects of climate change, which means redesigning the obsolete ways real estate is financed; housing subsidies are distributed; transportation is provided; and water is obtained, distributed and disposed of. These engines of growth have become increasingly more dysfunctional both economically and environmentally.
The Agile City highlights tactics that create multiplier effects, which means that ecologically driven change can shore-up economic opportunity, can make more productive workplaces, and can help revive neglected communities. Being able to look at multiple effects and multiple benefits of political choices and private investments is essential to assuring wealth and well-being in the future. Green, Russell writes, grows the future.
"instills hope and inspires movement toward being better at living on this planet"
"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 argues persuasively for learning from the past… [and] 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's thesis is powerful, his reasoning tight, and his evidence persuasive. All told, The Agile City is one of the most compelling environmental treatises to appear in recent decades."
Issues in Science and Technology
"The Agile City is a particularly astute summary and prescription for practical and nuanced organizational and economic strategies."
Landscape Architecture Magazine
"...for an uninitiated audience, there are few texts comparable to The Agile City in terms of its comprehensive approach and efficient language."
Global Site Plans
"The Agile City is a brilliant manifesto. James Russell makes a compelling case that climate change must be confronted at home: in the designs of our houses, apartments, workplaces and cities. But this is not just another 'green' initiative—the results could profoundly improve our quality of life—even as they help save the planet."
James B. Stewart, author of "Tangled Webs" and "Den of Thieves"
"James Russell offers a timely and compelling blueprint for a realistic transformation of America's energy consumption by refusing to fall victim to conventional thinking. Accessible—pragmatic even—Russell's proposals speak to goals on the immediate horizon and underscore the role that intelligent design can play now in America. On a longer horizon, his analysis points to a range of issues about land use, transportation, and coordination of public and private investments to which the design professions have an enormous contribution to make. Here design and policy find common ground."
Barry Bergdoll, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art
"After observing architecture, real estate, and the built environment for decades, James Russell tackles the largest issue of the day: climate change. He demonstrates that practical, wealth-creating ways of growing and redeveloping American metropolitan areas will significantly address this crisis. Russell shows that local officials, real estate developers, building owners and homeowners can work in their own interests while meeting our long-term environmental goals."
Christopher B. Leinberger, University of Michigan, Brookings Institution and author of "The Option of Urbanism"
"This book helps the reader identify changes that make large impacts at low costs... The book helps readers take charge of their community's future by understanding the processes that make communities dynamic and adaptable."
"...the book provides some useful examples of realistic compromises which contribute to a less wasteful urban environment without attracting the wrath of the development industry. It also shows innovative actions taken on the margin, which have the potential to change legislation."
Prologue - Carbon-neutral Now
Introduction - The Concrete Metropolis in a Dynamic Era
PART I. The Land
Chapter 1. Climate Change in the Landscapes of Speculation
Chapter 2. A New Land Ethos
PART II. Repairing the Dysfunctional Growth Machine
Chapter 3. Real Estate
Chapter 4. Re-engineering Transportation
Chapter 5. Ending the Water Wars
Chapter 6. Megaburbs
PART III. Agile Urban Futures
-How to Be a Citizen in a Tumultuous Age
Chapter 7. Building Adaptive Places
Chapter 8. Creating Twenty-first-century Community
Chapter 9. Loose-fit Urbanism
Chapter 10. Green Grows the Future
Epilogue - Tools to Build Civic Engagement
It’s desnudas versus New York City.
Somehow shapely underclad women who’ve body-painted scanty tops have become a crisis in the city, requiring the demolition of plazas being built to make Times Square civilized.
The mayor and police commissioner overreacted, blaming the paving stones for this offensive (to some) innovation in the age-old art of the busker. To separate tourists and pedestrians from their cash, you gotta get a gimmick, as Ms. Mazeppa said in the musical “Gypsy.” And painted breasts certainly got everyone’s attention.
But the reaction is of a piece with America’s fear of public space. In other countries, a town square, or boulevardized street with wide sidewalks and cafés, invites conviviality as people stroll, take coffee, or hang out. In America, we assume that any public space that is not cordoned off for some “useful” purpose can only become a refuge for criminals, the homeless, and the mentally unstable. (In many suburbs, even sidewalks are looked on with suspicion. )
The police commissioner has concluded that plazas—permitting louche idleness instead of puritanical destination-focused purposefulness—conjured the presence of nude women. The solution? “Removal” of the problem. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but a common one, unfortunately.
The “problem” with public spaces is sometimes with the space, but mainly with our failure to gainfully employ people, who turn to public space to earn income. On Times Square, people push theater tickets, comedy clubs, tour busses. As cartoon characters, “naked” cowboys, and statues of liberty, they hustle tips from picture-taking tourists. Times Square is a buskerama. Which is absolutely in tune with its identity as the most commercial of public spaces. It would not be swarming with record millions if it was not fun. The allure is not the mall-style retail, but the mega-signage, which from time to time achieves dizzy heights of commercial nuttiness—but recently seems to have settled into a corporate coma.
Actually New York City is a model in many ways for the management of public space. Intimate plazas have been created out of little more than flower pots and paint. They work, they are actively managed, and they’ve proven very popular.
The City’s administration has come to its senses and will not demolish the plazas, which have cost millions to install. They are essential because there are many more people in the square than the inadequate sidewalks can handle, and accommodating them is a safety issue. With the excruciatingly length of the plaza construction project, much of the square has been torn up for years, leaving bottlenecks that are inhumane and unsafe.
A task force has been convened to address the desnudas, and sanity will probably prevail. (Though one idea, to cordon the desnudas, sounds even sillier than the designated prostitution zones found in Holland are.)
There are many ways to manage this problem (on a recent balmy afternoon there was not a painted breast to be seen), but resort to heavy-handed policing or to removal of the “offending” space is the kind of answer that destroyed peoples’ faith in cities through much of the 20th century.
In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal. The evolution, you may ask? A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example. Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.
Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege. Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience. In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people. Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?
So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us. As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will.
If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.
|Image: New York Times. January 21, 1975. “Decision Awaited on Permanent Times Sq. Mall|
In a period of intensified fears about crime, loitering, and ne’er-do-wells, the mall was never built, but the idea persisted. Other pedestrian malls of the era, most acutely in declining downtowns, were plagued by the anticipated social ills of the Times Square projects, and many were restored to car traffic in the 1980s and 90s.
Our present era bears scant resemblance to the first wave of pedestrianization schemes, especially as our narrative of the city has shifted from white flight-fueled decline and delinquency to gentrification and nagging fears of inauthenticity. We find ourselves at a strange cultural moment, somewhere between James Rouse’s festival marketplace and Banksy’s Disma-land, forging a beguiling Vegas-Orlando hybrid of friendly-faced characters trolling the now nostalgia-laden steps of buskers and prostitutes. In some sense, these larger than life figures inhabiting the Times Square plazas have become the ultimate irony of our Disneyfied landscape, their frustrated costumes bearing witness to the latent anger of a city beleaguered by class warfare, as though Guiliani had encased the beggars in costumes to disguise the pervasive squalor.
The problem with Times Square is not, however, that it has spawned a latent seediness, or even its intensified Disneyfication. The problem is that the success of the project and the trajectory of the city should have given weight to a much, much more ambitious vision of Broadway as a whole and that De Blasio should have instigated such a proposal upon taking office. To relieve the pedestrian congestion of the square, why not expand the plazas permanently north to Columbus Circle and south to Herald Square, as originally envisioned in the early 1970s. By undertaking a more comprehensive plan and capital investment in Times Square’s future, the administration might have had the foresight to craft a proactive strategy under which they could build out, manage, and define a clear vision of the Square, rather than defaulting to a reactive defeatism. Those within the administration and the advocates for public plazas, bike lanes, and other transportation investments that have multiplied across the city must also press beyond the painted lines of incremental progress in the interest of securing their investments in concrete and curbs. These capital investments can move the city and its citizens beyond the misconception of a perennial transportation experiment towards a new and permanent paradigm for the public realm.
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