Green urban revival
The Agile City by James S. Russell. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2011, 290 pp.
Martin W. Lewis
In The Agile City, James S. Russell offers a blueprint for restructuring the settlement system of the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. Russell wants to put an end to the “growth machine” of suburban expansion that pushes development away from metropolitan cores, generating a large carbon footprint in the process. In its place, he calls for urban intensification, advocating increasing density through ecofriendly building projects in established cities and suburbs. As the inherent efficiencies of proximity are realized, environmental stress would decline and adaptability would increase; economic, cultural, and social gains would follow.
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. It puts forward a realistic, potentially achievable plan for responding not only to the challenge of climate change, but also to the economic dilemmas posed by mounting fuel prices and unsustainable real estate practices. If Russell’s advice were to be followed, it could lead to an urban renaissance and a green revival of the U.S. economy. If anything, Russell tends to undersell his thesis, bypassing many of the positive economic consequences of urban revitalization. But he also underestimates the opposition that his scheme will encounter, particularly from antidevelopment activists posing as environmentalists.
Although highlighting urban places, The Agile City ranges over a broad terrain, moving from cities to inner suburbs, outer sprawl, the exurban fringe, and beyond. Russell’s thematic concerns are equally wide, encompassing the history of land speculation and development, the emergence of the national transportation grid, and the installation of municipal and regional waterworks. Such an expansive scope reflects the author’s contention that cities cannot be understood or managed as isolated entities. Environmental and financial considerations demand regionally based planning that takes into account the road, rail, and resource links between cities and their hinterlands.
Russell’s varied concerns come together in his dissection of the growth machine that has molded U.S. development since the mid-20th century. Subsidies for freeways and mortgages encouraged mass suburbanization, a process further fueled by procrustean zoning and antiurban rhetoric. As the development industry realized large and steady profits by subdividing cheap greenfield sites, it turned away from smaller and more idiosyncratic projects in established urban areas. As builders lost interest, so too did bankers, making it difficult to obtain financing for infill developments. Disinvestment in the core further propelled the frontier outward. Young householders were told to “drive to qualify” for mortgages, trading long commutes for supposedly bucolic lives on quarter-acre lots. As builders and their financiers focused on short-term profits, construction standards slipped, ensuring the rapid obsolescence of new housing tracts. As the suburban fringe burgeoned, road networks strained to keep pace. Transportation slowdowns coupled with tax incentives encouraged firms to follow their employees into the outskirts, giving rise to isolated office parks and corporate campuses accessible only by car.
This self-perpetuating suburbanization machine is already encountering limits. It relies heavily on cheap gasoline, which appears to be a thing of the past. The ongoing real estate debacle of 2008 illustrates the perversity of the underlying dynamic, as stressed consumers can no longer afford either their commutes or the spacious houses they acquired in the artificial boom of the early 2000s. Corporations are reconsidering their own drive to the periphery, as the costs of pedestrian-hostile office parks become evident. Despite the rise of electronic networks and social media, the face-to-face interactions fostered by high density still return dividends. The most creative and valuable employees of topline firms, moreover, often reject the suburban lifestyle, favoring city-based employers. Although occurring too recently to be mentioned in the book, the move by financial giant UBS from Stamford, Connecticut, to midtown Manhattan is emblematic of this process.
The current breakdown of the growth machine, as Russell shows, opens new opportunities for urban revitalization. City living is less ecologically demanding than suburban existence, because of transport efficiencies and the ease of heating and provisioning large, compact buildings. New environmentally friendly construction techniques promise to make dense urban and inner suburban clusters even more benign. Careful attention to planning and design can further enhance the livability of cityscapes, creating pleasing neighborhoods of appropriate scale. High-density projects can even enhance urban natural habitats, as parking lots are replaced by parks as well as buildings, while storm drains yield to bioswales. As Russell demonstrates, a number of innovative projects have proven economically and environmentally successful. In Vancouver, Canada, sought-after residential towers are ingeniously designed so that they do not block views and do not cast perpetual shadows on their neighboring structures. In Hamburg, Germany, the $10 billion HafenCity redevelopment project is creating an environment where cars “will be largely superfluous” and in which flood zones are transformed into public parks and plazas. Although a few of the ventures showcased are located in the United States, more are in Europe and Canada, where the bias against high-density urbanism is less pronounced. If the United States is to adequately confront the challenge of global warming, Russell contends, it must be willing to learn from techniques pioneered in other countries.
Although The Agile City calls for a regional perspective, most of its case studies focus on specific building projects. Such localized attention is not surprising, considering the author’s background as the architectural critic of Bloomberg News. Russell seems most at home discussing green design. Many low-tech strategies, such as cross-ventilation coupled with high ceilings, were standard before the spread of mass air conditioning made possible by cheap energy. Other favored approaches entail ingenious techniques of moderate sophistication, such as the use of geothermal heat pumps that take advantage of the constant temperatures found 20 feet below the earth’s surface. The integration of energy provisioning, waste minimization, and water conservation figures prominently in a number of the examples offered. As the author shows, runoff and wastewater can be transformed from detriments to amenities, filling pleasant waterways and irrigating pockets of park-like vegetation. In all cases, place-sensitive design is stressed, drawing on the accumulated wisdom of local traditions and taking into account climatic and topographic specificities. Whereas the old growth machine produced standardized, commodity-like buildings and complexes, the new urbanism aims for unique places of individual character.
Throughout the book, Russell emphasizes the need to guide development. But he calls for a new approach to planning, one that is flexible and proactive rather than rigid and reactive. He is impatient not only with cumbersome regulations, but also with some of the key tools of establishment environmentalism. The author associates environmental impact statements, for example, with a kind of tunnel vision that can thwart even the most ecologically sensible projects. Rigorous top-down planning, he contends, can lock in place inefficient approaches, forestalling innovation. The Agile City thus calls for a “loose-fit” strategy that actively lubricates innovative development. Russell also pushes voluntary methods of achieving environmental sustainability, particularly the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which uses crowd-sourcing to promote progressive practices. Russell puts much store in the demonstration effect, implicitly contending that well-formulated ecodevelopment will sell itself if given the chance.
The Agile City advocates a pragmatic approach to environmental policy, eschewing utopianism. As is increasingly common in the environmental mainstream, Russell has no problem with the profit motive and certainly has no objection to development per se. He even foresees a continuing role for the suburban fringe, admitting that many people will remain committed to the lifestyle of the distant commuter. What he proposes is steering the growth process, by persuasion more than fiat, into an environmentally favorable mode. The key is to reclaim and intensify urban environments, transforming empty lots and abandoned factories into vibrant neighborhoods. As the property markets of pedestrian-friendly and mass transit–oriented cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, and San Francisco show, many people crave city life and are willing to a pay a premium to live in safe metro neighborhoods. If the right kinds of development were promoted, concentrated communities could multiply and spread. Decaying central places could be revitalized, suburbs on transit lines could be transformed into genuine cities, and increasing numbers of people could be accommodated in attractive, affordable urban neighborhoods.
Obstacles to intensification
As Russell shows, environmentally responsible development is occurring in a number of U.S. cities. Portland, Oregon, in particular has embraced an anti-sprawl agenda that has generally proven successful. Overall, however, the scale of urban ecodevelopment in the United States remains modest, inadequate to spark the kind of metropolitan renaissance that The Agile City envisages. Russell tends to sidestep this issue, preferring to emphasize achievements over blockages. He does, however, acknowledge some of the obstacles that would be faced by any effort to apply his model in wholesale form. These range from the simple inertia of a risk-averse real estate industry to the ensconced incentive structures maintained by growth-machine politics and the continued existence of “brain-dead regulatory regimes.” In a few passages, he also concedes the impediments posed by self-proclaimed environmental activists seeking to maintain their own neighborhoods and lifestyles. NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition, Russell allows, is most pronounced in affluent coastal metropolitan areas, especially those of California, that best fit the urban deepening program that he advances. Such communities, he argues, “may preserve only what they know, in a very limited way, usually at high cost.”
Although Russell acknowledges the NIMBY challenge to his vision, I am not convinced that he does so to an adequate extent. Growth-averse urban communities may not merely preserve what they know, but may also forestall all of the changes needed to create genuinely agile cities. Russell writes as if persuasion, demonstration, and good design will be enough to weaken the stranglehold of antidevelopment activists on the planning process in affluent U.S. cities and suburbs. In the book’s epilogue, he champions community workshops where local citizens will discover that “developers are not ogres” and build consensus around the ideals of ecodevelopment. Elsewhere he contends that “you cannot fault people for abhorring high-intensity development when it comes in the form of . . . ill-proportioned buildings.”
If only it were that simple. My own perspective is no doubt colored by living in one of the most development-averse towns in the country, Palo Alto, California, but I am not convinced that any amount of evidence or any kind of argument will convince neighborhood activists of the need to increase the density of their own cities. Palo Alto leaders have long acknowledged their responsibility to add affordable housing, especially along the commuter rail line that bisects the city, but they are perennially stymied by the vehemence of property owners. The much-mocked “Palo Alto process” ensures that everything from a minor modification of a single house to the erection of a small condominium complex moves along at a snail’s pace, precluding the integrated ecodevelopment projects that Russell champions. Wrapping themselves in a green mantle, quality-of-life stalwarts equate any additional housing units with amplified traffic and other assorted socioenvironmental ills, and do everything they can to stymie development. In the process, what they most effectively protect are their own property values; in Palo Alto, shoddy 1,500-square-foot tract homes from the 1960s sell for more than $1 million, maintaining their valuation even during the recent housing bust.
The blockages sketched above would be of little matter if they were limited to one small town. Unfortunately, the same attitudes are widely held throughout the Bay Area and are encountered as well in prosperous cities and inner suburbs elsewhere in the country. A prime case is the proposed redevelopment of the abandoned Hunters Point naval shipyard in southeastern San Francisco. For more than a decade, city officials have been working on plans with a private firm to cleanse the area of its environmental contaminants and construct a new community of some 10,500 homes. Opposition from environmental and social groups, however, has stalled the project. In 2008, two-thirds of San Francisco residents voted to allow development to proceed, but pending lawsuits ensured that nothing would happen. A July 2011 Superior Court ruling finally held in favor of the construction plan, with minor modifications. As a result, a new community will perhaps begin to emerge within a few years. But during the span of time since this and other urban initiatives were proposed, most new development in the region has been shunted outside of the Bay Area into formerly agricultural lands of the Central Valley, generating traffic jams of monumental proportions across the intervening hills. Today, the “instant city” of Mountain House in inland San Joaquin County has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state, standing as a monument to the maladaptive practices of the suburban growth machine.
Before the agile cities that Russell envisages are to emerge, stakeholders in the current system must first acknowledge that many of the prime candidates for urban intensification are not merely unresponsive at present but positively sclerotic. Alongside Russell’s growth machine of the ever-expanding suburban frontier stands an equally perverse antigrowth machine in the affluent cores. Although those who push the levers of the antidevelopment mechanism claim to be protecting the environment, their actions have extraordinarily negative environmental consequences when examined at a broad scale. Unfortunately, many members of the green community have enthusiastically embraced only the second part of the 1960s credo, “think globally, act locally.” When it comes to urban intensification, acting locally sometimes seems to preclude thinking systematically, let alone globally.
In the U.S. economic crisis of 2008–2009, the suburban growth machine collapsed, brought to ruin by its own financial excesses along with rising fuel prices. The resulting blow to the U.S. economy as a whole attests to the centrality of the housing sector. As of yet, few signs of recovery are visible, and a significant proportion of the population remains in desperation. Reigniting economic growth is thus a pressing need, but any attempt to do so by restarting the suburbanization apparatus would be a foolish if not impossible gambit. Fortunately, another option is now on the table, laid out in detail by Russell. If all unreasonable obstacles to development were removed, favored metro areas would immediately see major building booms; if the guidelines proposed by Russell were followed, the resulting growth would not only deliver major environmental benefits but would simultaneously help jump-start the national economy.
Martin W. Lewis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer at Stanford University and the author of Green Delusions: A Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. He blogs at Geocurrents.info.