[URBANTH-L] REV: Daniels on Moore, _Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City_

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Fri Oct 5 12:48:09 EDT 2007

[cross-posted from H-Urban]

Published by  H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (October 2007)

Steven A. Moore. _Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City_. Lanham:
Lexington Books, 2007. 243 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, index. $34.95
(paper), ISBN 0-7391-1534-0.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Tom Daniels <thomasld at design.upenn.edu>, 
Department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

Sustainable cities are a hot topic, and for good reason. By the end of this
decade, more people will be living in cities than in the countryside for the
first time in history. Meanwhile, a host of environmental problems have
gained public attention: climate change, air quality, water supplies,
alternative energy and fossil fuel supplies, and population growth. The
solution, according to environmentalists, is for cities to move toward the
triple bottom line of sustainable environments, economies, and societies.
This means protecting green spaces and natural areas, constructing energy
efficient buildings, providing jobs and housing opportunities, and equitably
distributing the benefits of environmental quality and economic growth.

Yet, progress toward sustainability is easier said than done. Some
environmentalists advocate best practices, such as the Leadership in Energy
and Environmental Design (LEED) standards created by the U.S. Green Building
Council. Others call for indicators to measure progress. In _Alternative
Routes to the Sustainable City_, Steven A. Moore presents a third way: the
interchange between a city's dominant story line and its "counter talk." In
each of the three cities he profiles, Moore explores the political,
environmental, and technological issues and philosophies that have
influenced the path taken toward sustainability. Moore's ultimate aim is to
test the relationship between sustainability and democracy.

Moore identifies three types of political approaches. "Liberal anarchism,"
which emphasizes private property rights and asocial behavior and which he
associates with Austin, Texas. "Liberal realism" is rule by experts, best
exemplified by Curitiba, Brazil. And "liberal minimalism" is tolerant of
conflict while promoting market-based decisions. A city's public discussion
of environmental issues can be reformist, radical, "imaginative," or
"prosaic." Reformists prefer a pragmatic, problem-solving approach; radicals
are Neo-Malthusians who see the need for tight control of people to minimize
consumption. The imaginative theme follows the ideas of the Brundtland
report of 1987, to use natural resources and the environment in ways that
leave future generations at least as well off as the current generation.[1]
At the far extreme are the deep ecologists who espouse the primacy of nature
and reject an anthropocentric view of the environment. Finally, a city can
either embrace technology as a solution leading to sustainability or adopt a
skeptical and even technophobic attitude.

Austin is not a leading U.S. example of a city progressing toward
sustainability. But Moore, who teaches architecture and planning at the
University of Texas, knows the city's story. Yet Moore omits some key
information about the city: its population growth over the past thirty to
fifty years, the geographic size of the city, and how the city fits into its
region. For instance, Austin has annexed thousands of acres to expand the
city; additionally, Texas counties do not have zoning powers and hence it is
very easy for new houses and strip malls to sprawl across the countryside.

Moore concentrates on the struggle to protect Barton Springs, an aquifer
that provides drinking water to 45,000 residents, and the Edwards Aquifer.
This struggle between the developers who champion private property rights
and the environmentalists who cite the public's need for clean drinking
water produced a major victory for sustainability. But meanwhile, Austin's
population has continued to increase thanks, in large part, to the high-tech
boom. As Moore notes, the city is on the verge of falling out of compliance
with the federal air quality standards.

In discussing Austin (and the other two cities, Curitiba and Frankfurt,
Germany), Moore could have listed the city's achievements toward
sustainability and additional steps the city could or should take. In
chapter 5, Moore uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis to show
that Austin has done well in providing parks and open space, but not so well
in its public transit (though a commuter rail system is now under
construction). Austin also has a relatively low density, and is segregated
between wealthy west Austin and low- to moderate-income east Austin.

Surprisingly, Moore pays little attention to the connection between the
national Smart Growth movement and sustainability. In particular, Smart
Growth relies on the premise that population and the economy can continue to
grow and produce a higher quality and more sustainable environment. Is this
realistic? And is Austin's growth smart?

Moore does make an important insight about politics in Austin. The lack of
continuous political control by the sustainability supporters has weakened
Austin's efforts over time. But this political roller coaster undercuts
Moore's statement that Austin "takes sustainability seriously" (p. 29).
Moore characterizes Austin as liberal anarchic (a reflection of its frontier
heritage), economically rational (market-driven), and technophilic (as one
would expect in a high-tech boomtown). The counter story line is based on
progressive populism, green romanticism, and clean technology.

Moore's discussion of "The Miracle of Curitiba," in chapter 3, is the
highlight of the book, and I would assign it to master's level students in
environmental planning. Moore makes a strong case that Brazil's (and perhaps
the world's) most ecological city has largely been the result of
technocratic planning that started under a military dictatorship. Jaime
Lerner, the renowned former mayor, was initially appointed as head of the
Urban Planning and Research Institute of Curitiba, which had real power to
plan. Land use decisions drove transit bus investment. The center of the
city remained economically strong, and density decreased gradually along
transit corridors moving away from the city center. Moreover, development
and infrastructure investment decisions were made incrementally and
pragmatically, based on what Moore refers to as "abductive reasoning" (p.

Curitiba gained fame for sustainability while its population grew from
500,000 in 1965 to 2.4 million in the late 1990s (p. 83). The city has a
high density of 102.5 people per hectare (more than 40 people per acre [p.
194]) and a heavy use of public buses, but only a small amount of green
space per person. The city has been able to attract a considerable amount of
foreign investment, which has helped to provide jobs for a growing
population. Moore uses GIS to point out a key shortcoming that has been
overlooked by other commentators, namely, the spread of informal, low-income
settlements (_favelas_) just outside the city limits of Curitiba (p. 175).

Frankfurt is Germany's financial capital. Moore characterizes the city's
story as progressive capitalism: politically tolerant, in favor of
ecological modernization, and embracing technological progress. He takes the
construction of the Commerzbank tower in the 1990s as the event that united
economic, social, and environmental sustainability in Frankfurt. The tower
was proposed in the early 1990s at a time when the political left and
environmentalists (a so-called red/green coalition) governed the city. The
coalition was in favor of the tower and ensured through a building code that
the tower was built to green standards. Commerzbank went along with the

Since 1995, the banking interests have controlled the city government.
Frankfurt scores well on green space per person, having even more than
Austin does. Its transit system of buses, commuter trains, and subway is
more diverse than Curitiba's and has nearly as heavy ridership. And
Frankfurt is nearly four times more densely settled than Austin. As Moore
notes, "greater density generally supports social equity" (p. 171).

Moore's overall contention is that there are many ways for a city to make
progress toward sustainability. Curitiba appears to have made the most
progress toward sustainability by minimizing citizen input; although Austin
is far more democratic, the political process has somewhat stymied progress
toward sustainability. Frankfurt appears to be dominated by the financial
industry, while being politically tolerant. So Moore's attempt to prove that
the most democratic political system will produce the most sustainable city
remains moot.

The three main achievements that Moore points to are: Austin's watershed
zoning, Curitiba's infrastructure, and Frankfurt's eco-skyscraper. Each, he
argues, were the result of incremental and pragmatic planning. Perhaps more
important are the attitudes toward zoning in the three cities. Austin and
its environs have mostly weak zoning, resulting in leapfrog development.
Curitiba has strong zoning, which has produced concentric growth; and
Frankfurt also has strong zoning combined with ample park space. How cities
use zoning is a crucial reflection of their political philosophy and
dominant story line, which in turn influences the path they choose toward

_Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City_ largely presents a
philosophical analysis of city efforts toward sustainability. The writing is
often dense, and the book could have been edited down by a quarter. A more
journalistic approach would have made the ideas in the book clearer in
telling the stories of each city. Still, Moore's ideas are stimulating, and
the book will be of interest to Ph.D. students and professors in urban
environmental planning.


[1]. World Commission on Environment and Development, _Our Common Future_
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

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