Out with the Old: The Agile City

In The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, James S. Russell, architecture columnist for Bloomberg News, argues against taking a mainstream, business-as-usual-approach to addressing climate change in the U.S.  The current global warming debate focuses on harnessing “alternative energies” strategies, like hydrogen-powered cars and biofuels, clean coal, and reinvented nuclear that Russell calls speculative technologies that may not prove viable, require significant investments and have large environmental effects. He proposes a different approach, one that could have manifold benefits and achieve faster and more effective results than making massive alternative-energy investments that amount to tax gimmicks. There is just one sticking point: they would require the U.S. to move away from the “normalcy” of overconsumption. 

Russell’s solution for adapting to climate change and achieving carbon neutrality is based on proven efficiency measures and some renewable energy. He targets buildings and transportation, the two largest sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that respectively account for 40 percent and 28 percent of emissions. Addressing them simultaneously with denser, energy conservation-oriented and transit-centered development, Russell says, could result in more agile cities, those that are able to adapt to constant change, simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions while coping with climate-change effects. 

The agile city would evolve out of innovative policies that “deploy regulations straightforwardly, balancing them with incentives. Rules will reward performance (energy, water, and emissions saved) rather than prescribing what lightbulbs we’ll use and what cars we’ll drive.” These regulations will also boost well-being and produce economic values that gross domestic product (GDP) fails to measure, like increased real estate values from repaired natural systems and health care costs saved from reduced rates of cancer.

Rather than taking drastic measures like wiping out suburbia and converting it to a traditional city or inventing the perfect “supercar,” these regulations would engage sensible and relatively low-tech strategies to retrofit, repurpose, and reinvent the current landscape of megaburbs – a viral form of “suburbia on steroids” that requires high energy and resource use. New development patterns would create “mutt-like” urban hybrids with multifamily and mixed-use buildings clustered along transit corridors. Buildings could harvest natural sources of sun, shade, fresh air, daylight and cooling with updates to traditional climate-responsive technologies rather than requiring expensive and complex mechanical systems. Transit corridors could offer “prosaic auto alternatives that a great number of people can use,” like bike lanes, rationalized bus routes, and rail systems. As communities become denser and shift away from automobile dependence, the leftover asphalt acreage from roads and parking lots could convert to space for natural systems like suburban forests and wetland restoration.

Russell believes the U.S. can craft the policies and develop a growth machine that supports these endeavors with fairly straightforward regulatory measures, but they will require a significant shift in cultural attitudes. The current growth machine creates dysfunctional sprawl through the way real estate is financed, housing subsidies are distributed, transportation is provided, and resources like water are obtained, distributed, and disposed of in communities. This system, once supposedly intended to provide affordable housing, now forces people to move continuously further out from urban centers, resulting in a need for ever-increasing taxes and resource consumption. While new regulations could spur new development patterns, Americans, who have traditionally equated private property ownership with wealth and independence and continue to buy into the current system, would have to let go of old habits. Can megaburbs embrace big-city density and diversity, so long anathema in suburbs?

Russell thinks the government can encourage people to embrace new attitudes toward ownership and community by taking a harder line on land use policy, construction techniques, and driving. Rather than allowing private property rights to trump the greater good of the public, Russell believes government at all scales must stop basing growth on the heedless accumulation of individual investments and try to develop a land ethos based on community values. He wants to encourage Americans to adopt new ideas about ownership that would support strategies by which communities act in tandem to protect the land they share, like land trusts and mitigation banks, especially in places that are at the greatest risk of natural disasters.  

He also wants to stop promoting tax benefits and subsidies that encourage funding for a limited menu of obsolete buildings and only benefit speculators and wealthy homeowners. He says to forego current incentives, like forgiving capital gains taxes on the sale of homes, and introducing new ones that would discourage people from treating their house as “investment vehicles” rather than homes. For instance, he suggests only allowing interest deductions on home-equity loans when loan proceeds go to fixing up houses, especially to make them more energy efficient. He also wants to promote tax benefits and direct subsidies that encourage builder and designer innovation and reward homes that are smaller, more efficient, and shore up existing communities and repair environmental damage.

As far as transportation goes, Russell says it is imperative to put public transportation infrastructure in place first to get people out of their cars. In order to finance this effort, he wants to banish the billion dollar beltways and divert the funding from taxes that currently subsidize roads, cars, and gas to support bus and rail systems. He suggests a 25 cent rise in gas tax, called a “mobility fee” to raise $305 billion over the next 10 years for new public transportation infrastructure. To provide further disincentive for driving, he also suggests a series of “pay as you go” fees that would provide compensation for automobile-induced pollution. These fees would include raised pump fees, additional tolls, and congestion fees.

These policies could prove a hard sell to Americans who generally dislike the idea of government actively organizing, promoting, and controlling land use. Russell provides a variety of examples and case studies to sell the benefits of low-carbon living and dispel the myth that a green economy will constrain individual enterprise. He claims he is not advocating for “faith-based greening” and “do-gooder agendas”, but rather for strategies that will simultaneously build well-being and wealth. Aware of the fact that many people believe that measures like carbon or mobility taxes will deprive people of income, Russell wants to assure them that “an agile city doesn’t simply impose new burdens but shifts incentives and disincentives (especially growth machine ones) that are more productive environmentally and economically.”

He believes the new growth machine would drive a green economy that could replace the U.S.’s unstable growth model built on short-term economic cycles and the consumption of finite resources. It would respect the limits of growth the current model wants to ignore, thereby avoiding resource shortages and the destruction of natural systems that can no longer support human endeavors. It would also support a different type of growth, one that recognizes that faster-growing cities are not necessarily wealthier: “countries can grow in wealth without growing in population and, by implication, without increasing consumption; slow growth with careful stewardship of resources could pay off.” Cities with local food economies, for example, benefit from high-quality, organic, locally-produced food that thrives in the uniqueness of a given locale’s climate and soils. This food is exchanged through personal transactions that depend less heavily on transportation energy and unsustainable manufacturing practices. Plus, locally grown crops can sustain rural places trying to compete in the hemispheric, commodity-agriculture economy.

Russell demonstrates that there are manifold benefits to connecting wealth to well-being with a triple bottom line approach to ensuring economic, environmental, and social value. But is America ready to make the significant cultural shift towards a post-consumption economy? Russell’s approach may be based on simplified regulatory measures and low-tech strategies, but, as he notes, it will require answering complex questions: “The big decisions will ultimately be ours as a society to make: What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of place do we want to have in the world? What resources are we conserving? What natural environments are we leaving less sullied for our children?”

Read the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern.

Image credit: Island Press

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