The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change

The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change

by James S. Russell


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597267250
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 08/15/2012
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.01(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

James S. Russell is the architecture columnist for Bloomberg News. He has written about cities, architecture, and environmental design for more than 20 years. As a long-time editor, he helped Architectural Record magazine win a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He has written for numerous newspapers, magazines and books and consulted to environmental organizations, cities, and architects. He teaches at the City College of New York and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Read an Excerpt

The Agile City

Building Well-Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change

By James S. Russell


Copyright © 2011 James S. Russell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-027-9



On a visit to a traditional stepped-gable North Sea town in Holland's Delftlands called Scheveningen, I climbed with a group over a broad grassy dune that looked like the back of a four-story-high humped sea creature. A beach, among the widest I had ever seen, stretched out before us. We were being shown not works of nature but works of civil engineering. This massive dune and beach were created to shield the village from North Sea storms of growing violence. The Dutch are good at this sort of thing, having been forced to keep the sea out of their low-lying landscape for hundreds of years.

The super dune and beach were an example of how seriously the Dutch take global warming effects, which they are already feeling, not just on the coast but in rainwater that fills drainage systems and in larger and more prolonged river flooding. (The Rhine River and many of its tributaries drain much of Europe through Holland.) The issue is especially urgent as much of the country is below sea level and weather changes threaten to overwhelm already elaborate protections.

I tried to imagine such beach fortification along low-lying American coasts. Would residents agree to hunker behind such a massive ridge of sand, one that would deprive them of their view and easy access? Who would pay the tens of millions of dollars per mile? (Similar protections were considered by America's dam and levee builders, the US Army Corps of Engineers, for the Katrina-battered coast of Mississippi, but they never gained favor.)

The Netherlands does what America can't yet do because its cultural and legal approach to land is profoundly different from America's. This is why a book about communities becomes a book about land. Cities do not happen without citizens making choices about how to divide and parcel land, and about what can get built where.

US senator Mary Landrieu is determined to bring the Dutch approach to flood protection, and its technical prowess, to America. She led the delegation that scaled the Scheveningen dune so that Lisa Jackson, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency and representatives of the Army Corps could see what was possible. Landrieu had become a convert to the Dutch approach as she looked for means to protect and restore the coastline of nineteen fast-eroding Louisiana parishes—labout one-third of the state she represents. Coastal marshes that nurture fisheries and protect low-lying towns and cities have been shrinking alarmingly since well before Katrina (1,900 square miles lost since the 1930s), but the storm dramatically weakened coastal defenses. She had a plan, but it could cost $50 billion and was going nowhere in Congress. The Netherlands, with a population the size of Florida's, commits between 5 billion and 7 billion euros annually to water management (which equals up to $9 billion). By contrast, "I can't even find a couple of hundred million," said Landrieu on the tour. "I'm pushing to the point where I'm aggravating people in Congress. But they need to understand how much we need to do." With hurricane season approaching as we spoke, she added, "people are living in abject fear."

No hurricane pummeled Louisiana that summer, but the fate of two flat, grassy lots on the ocean near Charleston, South Carolina, show what Senator Landrieu's campaign was up against—land it wasn't just the money.


David Lucas, a developer, expected to build and sell oceanfront homes on two lots, homes much like those all up and down the beach in the Wild Dunes development on the idyllic-sounding Isle of Palms. Lucas had not reckoned with South Carolina's Beachfront Management Act, which prohibited building on the lots because the shoreline was unstable. Houses so close to the ocean were also at risk for destruction by the high winds and storm-surge waves of hurricanes.

Lucas took the state to court, arguing that the act created what in legal terms is called a "taking" by the government, because it deprived his land of its value. The Constitution's Fifth Amendment requires the government to pay compensation to landowners if it takes private property for public use. Though the clause is intended to assure owners compensation in the case of outright appropriation of land (condemnation for use as a highway, for example), Lucas's attorneys argued that the Beachfront Management Act constituted a regulatory taking, in which the government needed to compensate Lucas because the law caused his property to lose value. When you consider that his lots were surrounded by lots already developed, it is easy to sympathize. The law seemed to single him out.

The state's law, however, was designed to prevent well-documented perils of heedless coastal development. Up and down the East Coast, the federal government had been throwing billions of dollars into projects that dumped dredged sand on beaches to protect properties, most of them owned by affluent people. At times, millions of dollars have been spent rebuilding a beach that washed away in a single season.

Lucas's case went to the US Supreme Court, which stopped short of ruling that he had suffered a taking but ordered the state to take another look at his claim. South Carolina got the message and eventually allowed Lucas to build. It and other states have either loosened shoreline regulations or quietly stopped enforcing them. The Lucas case did not prove to be the landmark that property rights activists had hoped it would be; subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court, if anything, have further muddled the question of just what the government "owes" landowners when a regulation limits their development options.

In the meantime, hurricanes validated the regulations. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, in Florida, wrought more than four times as much damage as Hugo, just a few years earlier. In 2004, Hurricanes Ivan and Frances slammed both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida, killing 108 and leaving $50 billion in wreckage. The year 2005 brought Wilma and Rita, but they have been all but forgotten because Hurricane Katrina, moving slowly and deliberately, flattened most of the Mississippi coast and relentlessly probed New Orleans's levees until it found vulnerabilities. It was the first hurricane to bring a major American city to its knees.

The rush to build in harm's way may seem senseless, but it goes on even as the effects of climate change—lhigher floodwaters, more severe storms—lraise well-known risks higher. In the Lucas decision, Justice Antonin Scalia was skeptical of South Carolina's reasons for protecting the shoreline (and, of course, the property abutting it) and proposed that the state may have deprived Lucas of the entire value of his land in pursuit of mainly esthetic objectives. The Lucas decision meant a great deal to many people because it struck a blow for individualism, freedom from intrusion by government, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Yet those sentiments neither restore storm-ravaged communities nor make whole those who have lost houses to ubiquitously relentless beach erosion.

Agility, in urban terms, will mean that we can't mount the property owners' desires on a pedestal untouchable by wider community concerns. We will have to act in concert in all kinds of ways. We can't be mindlessly coercive; nor must everyone cede power over their lives to a central authority. But slowing climate change and dealing with its effects will challenge us to rethink our values and ask ourselves how we meet the challenges of the future in a way that retains what's truly fundamental to each of us.

Senator Landrieu has bought into a level of spending on flood control America has not attempted, but she has also embraced a Dutch culture of land use in which, comparatively, the desires of the individual landowner count for little. Over hundreds of years, Holland could never have kept the sea out, nor diked and drained vast tracts to build new land, if they had to do it one farmer and land parcel at a time. They needed to do it on a bigger scale and cooperatively. The result has been to create a culture of consensus, where the overarching need to keep everyone dry, through the power of government, takes precedence over the desires of the individual.

This small nation can afford to so elaborately protect Scheveningen because it is a town that government has shaped into compact form to efficiently use the land so laboriously reclaimed. The town does not string along the beach for miles, in the pattern of American shorefront development. The super dune wraps the oceanfront and sides of the village, yet it is in total less than about a mile in length.

It is unlikely that Louisiana and the United States will adopt the Dutch model wholesale. But we will have to learn from the Dutch and others, simply because the future will require us to renegotiate not only our rules and spending priorities but also our values and culture of land use—land these run deep.


The United States became a nation of individual landowners as an alternative to hierarchical organizations of church and aristocracy in Europe that restricted political participation to the powerful few owners of land and kept the vast majority of people in some form of indentured servitude. In an overwhelmingly agricultural America, founding fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson could plausibly regard land itself as wealth, and therefore the key to each American's independence. As Joseph Ellis, a historian of the era, puts it, the Revolution's "core principal" of individual liberty, which "views any subordination of personal freedom to governmental discipline as dangerous," came into conflict with what developed in the Constitution's ratification debate "as the sensible surrender of personal, state, and sectional interests to the larger purposes of nationhood."

The agrarian-centered vision conflicted with Alexander Hamilton's view that a powerful, centralized state was necessary to survive in a world that even then featured growing cities, global powers, emerging large-scale industry, and an international banking system that could exert great power from across oceans over an economically weak and fragmented young nation. His Federalist vision didn't resonate, writes Ellis: "At the nub of the argument the colonist had used to discredit the authority of Parliament and the British monarchy was a profound distrust of any central authority that issued directives from a great distance."

The Hamiltonian views and the Jeffersonian views were left unresolved by the founding fathers, argues Ellis: "Both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American revolution." Yet Jefferson's bucolic vision of the landowning agricultural America won people's hearts (figure 1.1). Hamilton's more pragmatic outlook anticipated the enormous growth and concentration of financial power that occurred over ensuing decades and the parallel rise of cities of unimagined size as centers of wealth creation. The city sophisticate fleecing the honest yeoman has long been a staple of American literature—cementing in people's minds a perpetual suspicion of cities and city "slickers."

Madison—land to an even greater extent, Jefferson—lfamously thought economic success lay in getting government out of the way to allow natural economic laws of growth to proceed. This sentiment has largely governed the American attitude toward land use ever since. The idea that government should not actively organize, promote, and control land use and development, however, is almost unique in the world.

The Jeffersonian reluctance to constrict owners in their use of land remains deep-seated in the American consciousness even as our society and economy have transformed themselves well beyond any state imaginable by the founding generation. As the nation grew and moved from its agrarian roots to become a "Hamiltonian" industrialized powerhouse with an increasingly urban and finance-dependent economy, an individualist ethos alone would guide the way land was turned to urban use.

It's a model of growth that got established early. William Penn laid out Philadelphia in 1681 with the idealistic vision that the chaotic, disease-ridden city of the Old World could be supplanted by a rationally organized, spacious, and green city carved out of the New World's wilderness. He drew tree-lined, generously scaled blocks, lined with large houses entwined by gardens. Green public squares interrupted the grid of streets. It was beautiful—land doomed. Speculators quickly drove narrow alleys through the spacious blocks and filled the back gardens with fetid tenements.

The making of cities through speculation has been the story of American growth ever since. The approach is taken for granted to such an extent that it's hard to imagine any other way of doing things, though, in fact, growth through privatized land development is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of cities. (Historically, religions and empires, both political and mercantile, had largely guided city growth.) Funded by ever more sophisticated private finance and energized by the great wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, colonial villages became fast-growing privatized cities, such as New York and Philadelphia. They made good on the promise of opportunity that was at the root of the American idea, and they rewarded hard work, even though they were also degrading, criminal, immoral, and exploitative. While the dream of America drew millions from the crushing serfdoms of Europe, the vast majority ended up not on the character-building farms or installed amid pure wilderness but in the cities, with their opportunities, exploitations, and temptations.

A primacy of landowners' rights governed even as villages became metropolises and a farm might suddenly find a smoke-belching, mile-long steel plant as its neighbor. With the growth of industry and the gathering of people in cities, land became less a source of personal sustenance and more a potential source of monetary wealth. Privatism remains the reigning American city-making model: we try to accommodate any entrepreneur anywhere. Our Jeffersonian reluctance to tell landowners what they can do works well—until we hear of plans to run a new beltway past our backyard. Then we take to the streets and airwaves.

Speculators act; the rest of us react. It's a clumsy and often growth-strangling way to reconcile the diverse values we hold as both citizens and owners. In an era that must respond to unprecedented environmental challenges, it's not good enough.

In January 2006, I visited New Orleans, ravaged four months earlier by Hurricane Katrina. In small sections of the city, contractors clogged the streets with pickups and piles of new siding and roofing, but it was hard to see the old city springing to life. At that time, I toured the worst areas with local architect Allen Eskew, who was in favor of what was then called a "shrinking footprint" to rebuild New Orleans. That was post-Katrina lingo for consolidating rebuilding effort in areas that are the highest above sea level.

At the time of my visit, about eighty thousand residents had come back to the city, about one-sixth of the prehurricane population. A Rand Corporation study thought that only about half the population would return. "We can't maintain our old infrastructure with such a diminished population and such limited resources," Eskew observed as we drove around the city. The "shrinking footprint" idea was first proposed by the Urban Land Institute think tank. When planners published maps suggesting that immediate reinvestment be funneled to high-ground areas, people noticed that the left-behind tracts, whether in poor Central City and the Lower Ninth Ward or in affluent eastern New Orleans, were predominantly black.

Rebuilding in risk-prone areas may defy rationality, but returning to the same house on the same lot, in the same street and neighborhood, was almost a primordial desire for many New Orleans residents. Rebuilding on high ground seemed a rational position when the Army Corps could not guarantee flood resistance if a Category 5 storm hit the city (Katrina was a slow-moving Category 3). As residents of the very lowest swaths of the city stared at the muddy waterlines left behind by the flood, they asked themselves who would buy their property. How would they move? What kind of place would the city be without the old streets, and the seemingly unchanging neighborhoods lined with modest houses of curlicue carpentry and colorful paint?


Excerpted from The Agile City by James S. Russell. Copyright © 2011 James S. Russell. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue: Carbon-neutral Now xiii

Introduction: The Concrete Metropolis in a Dynamic Era 1

Part 1 The Land

1 Climate Change in the Landscapes of Speculation 15

2 A New Land Ethos 35

Part 2 Repairing the Dysfunctional Growth Machine

3 Real Estate: Financing Agile Growth 57

4 Re-Engineering Transportation 85

5 Ending the Water Wars 103

6 Megaburbs: The Unacknowledged Metropolis 125

Part 3 Agile Urban Futures

7 Building Adaptive Places 153

8 Creating Twenty-First-Century Community 177

9 Loose-fit Urbanism 199

10 Green Grows the Future 221

Epilogue: Tools to Build Civic Engagement 241

Notes 249

Index 273

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