New York City, like any great city, is the built expression in brick, glass, and steel, of aspiration and opportunity, as well as mistakes and wrong turns. We transform the landscape into cities, then cities transform us through culture and the people we meet. And yet the physical form of the city can be daunting: how can it possibly change fast enough for the lives we want to lead and to address the challenges we face? Must cities be marketplaces of plenty and conjure great wealth yet be cauldrons of despair because they trap us in unaffordable dead- end lives? How can places so devoted to convening people—for business, pleasure, for intellectual growth and cultural enrichment—be so bad at moving us around? These and many other questions are top of mind because New York City is in the midst of tumultuous change, remaking itself as convulsively today as in any previous era of explosive growth.
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.
“Agile” might seem a poor descriptor for cities, with their massive legacies of obsolete infrastructure, their confounding histories, and populations averse to change. Cities have had no choice but to be agile over millennia, and so they make an excellent laboratory—in extremis—of how institutions, organizations, and people react to disruptions and adapt to changing circumstances.
Great cities—London, Shanghai, Amsterdam, New York among them—have thrived over centuries by transforming themselves again and again to deal with changing technology, economic flows, and waves of immigrants, among other forces.
How have they done it? Who has the power? Where is the leadership? What can we do today, when key challenges intertwine: climate change, which must be faced at the same time as economic inequities, to name just two?
The Agile City can’t answer all those questions, but it can shed light on them— and on all our futures.
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 www.JamesSRussell.net. His book, The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, was published by Island Press.