Agile Architecture Means Happier People, Fewer Cars: Interview

The cover jacket of "The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change," by Bloomberg architecture critic James S. Russell. Source: Island Press via Bloomberg

Visiting a yoga retreat, James S. Russell, Bloomberg’s architecture critic since 2005, approvingly contemplates the natural sewage filtration system.

It’s a typically engaging moment. His new book, “The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change,” also takes us to a recycled shopping mall, sky trains, a window factory in the Empire State Building, and Hamburg’s Hafencity for examples of smart money investing in green.

We talked at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York City.

Hoelterhoff: Buildings, I was surprised to read, account for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a big number.

Russell: Conservation gets treated condescendingly in the climate change debate, lumped in with solar and wind, which are more expensive.

But reducing lighting, heating and cooling can bring the energy number down by 50 percent or more with today’s technology.

Hoelterhoff: Dockside Green on Vancouver Island sounds great. I might want to move.

Russell: It shows what you can do on the community level. It not only has low-energy buildings, but it connects to bus lines, to a little ferry line. There’s a bike route, a car-sharing program. People can walk to things they want to do.

This is how people save huge amounts of energy yet get to have a very nice life.

Not Free

Hoelterhoff: Why is a place like Dockside so hard to reproduce?

Russell: Because of the habitual way we finance real estate, the brain-dead way we do transportation -- autos only -- and the dysfunctional way we provide and deal with water. We pretend it’s free and it isn’t.

Hoelterhoff: Speaking of water, I liked those pictures of grass and narrow garden strips lining streets.

Russell: That’s the future: not letting rain and runoff flow into overburdened sewage-treatment plants. It’s a less expensive way of dealing with all the floods we’re having.

Hoelterhoff: And yet, it seems anything that isn’t an outsized house with a yard near a highway remains pretty hard to finance. That hasn’t changed since the mortgage meltdown?

Russell: All the perverse incentives that caused the mortgage meltdown remain in place, along with most of the crooks.

Multifamily housing, for example, is harder to finance.

Hoelterhoff: You write about what you call the “megaburbs,” with those highway strips that seem designed to kill pedestrians on sight.


Russell: They can be redesigned so that kids can bike to school and sports. A lot of moms in the suburbs drive 100-plus miles a week chauffeuring kids. That’s insane.

Hoelterhoff: Canada, especially Vancouver with those sky trains comes out really well. Seattle doesn’t, a surprise to me.

Russell: U.S. projects tend to be under-engineered. The Seattle line goes a pathetic 30 miles per hour and carries some 20,000 people a day.

Compare that to Vancouver’s line, which is faster and moves 100,000, the equivalent of a four-lane highway.

A huge transportation bill languishes in Congress. It could have been transforming.

Hoelterhoff: Can you explain why conservatives have so little interest in conservation?

Russell: Too many, not all, don’t look hard enough at the power of conservation and see transit as a boondoggle. In fact, beltway boondoggles induce the most inefficient growth by any measure.

Hoelterhoff: Reading about New Orleans was disappointing: It seems even Brad Pitt with his clever little houses couldn’t get much traction.

How to be Agile

Russell: The city made green innovation part of its rebuilding plan. But it can’t be financed in a conventional way, and the incentives and disincentives in the tax codes don’t help.

Then, people get scared. They don’t want to innovate in a disaster. They want to get back what they lost.

Hoelterhoff: Europe is more enlightened. Hamburg really seems to have confronted climate change head-on.

Russell: The new reclaimed docklands district takes steps to actually accept flooding. They also have escape routes for people. And all the buildings feature low energy systems and natural ventilation. The subway system was extended for easy access.

The greatest cities have always been agile as they adapted to change.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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