The world has begun to feel the effects of climate change. In America, hurricanes like Superstorm Sandy and Katrina, and more recent hurricanes Irma and Harvey, have brought urban areas to their knees; killing people, destroying communities, and causing untold billions in damage. In this context, urban analyst and historian James S. Russell’s book "The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change" calls for a fundamental re-thinking of many of the systems shaping urban areas today. In an uncertain world fraught with climate risks both known and not yet realized, Russell re-prioritizes agility, or the ability of a city to adapt to changing circumstances, as the main criterion for future success.
Russell’s comprehensive, systems-based approach shows much promise in the early going, as he thoroughly analyzes some of the dis-incentives shaping real estate development, affordable housing, water management, and transportation. Where other theorists have gushed over costly advanced building techniques, electric cars, or other “silver bullet” solutions, Russell’s call for a re-thinking and re-invention of entire systems shows remarkable sobriety. No, Russell reminds us, the industrial designers alone will not bail us out of this one. If we are to truly re-create the civic space in which physical places are made, we will need committed business leaders, policymakers, engineers, architects, and planners to make hard choices. It is not enough for an architect to produce some inspiring renderings - they too must grapple with a financial structure that incentivizes short-term real estate investing, wasting space and resources in the process.
Russell’s description of urban issues is one of the most comprehensive available, for which he is to be commended. How we actually begin the difficult task of creating agile cities, however, is less clear. While Russell’s cogency in summarizing what is wrong is certainly praiseworthy, his relative incoherence in proposing a way forward is not wholly his fault, for if anyone really knew the answers, there would be no book to write. So, "The Agile City" has the unfortunate task of making revolutionary change seem universally feasible and virtually pain-free. Russell is left only with the enfeebled options of “encouraging dialogue” and identifying a smattering of sometimes questionable case studies (Hamburg’s HafenCity among them). That’s not to say that his “sketches” of an agile urban future are entirely without value, but when compared to the colossal challenge ahead they leave readers craving more.
A true instruction manual to an “agile” future this book is not, but for an uninitiated audience, there are few texts comparable to "The Agile City" in terms of its comprehensive approach and efficient language. The architects, urban planners, and environmentalists hoping for bold leadership from this text will have to keep searching, as James S. Russell sadly will not lead the coming revolution.
What tactics should planners use to affect systemic change? What actions has your city taken in preparation for climate change? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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