The Agile City

While a unique confluence of forces—largely economic, cultural and environmental—is transforming urban places globally, these forces are having extraordinarily transformative effects on New York City. As a result, the form of the city is changing as convulsively as it did in the formative decades of the late 19th and early 20th century. At such a historic tipping point, The Agile City is intended to help participants think about city form and the forces that create it as integral to the larger questions and issues society faces.
New York City is a living laboratory of urban agility—the ability to proactively seek consensus among many interests to engage challenges and adapt to them. Great cities—London, Shanghai, Amsterdam among them—have thrived over centuries by transforming themselves to deal with changing technology, economic flows, waves of immigrants, and culture, among other forces. Today’s key challenges intertwine climate change and the inequities that persist as global wealth concentrates in fewer hands. Advocates for the large-scale efforts necessary to address climate change recognize that the cultural and social ecosystems that sustain poor communities are extremely vulnerable to disruptions. Given the urgency of transformation, the course will focus to a considerable degree on how adaptation can build both social and economic capital in such communities.
The course will ground itself in the physical city: at the intersection of architecture and planning (culture, identity and innovation in built form), social impact (how to grow broad well-being) and environmental sustainability (conserving nonrenewable resources and improving the health of ecosystems that support us). Students in the course will learn to “read” the physical city as a record of the forces that act on it and as an expression of transformative vitality. The class will draw from case studies in New York and elsewhere, using guest experts and site visits or walking tours.

Meet the Instructor(s)

James Russell

James S. Russell, FAIA, is the Director, Design Strategic Initiatives at the New York City Department of Design and Construction, where his current work engages sustainability, resilience, equity and healthy living.  He has written for numerous publications as an architecture critic and journalist, including The Economist, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He was the architecture critic at Bloomberg News and a long-time editor at Architectural Record magazine. He blogs at His book, The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, was published by Island Press.