Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City
Tony Favro
City Mayors Foundation
SW1 London, U.K.;
2012. 184 pages. Paperback: free.

Sustainability’s future will be determined not by well-meaning public policies and urban plans, but by the “hard constants” that motivate us at the deepest levels, Tony Favro argues in his book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City. Shaped by our experience with democracy and capitalism over hundreds of years, these hard constants embody our persistent values regarding individuals versus community, conservation versus consumption, growth versus stability, and planning versus freedom.

Written at times in a conversational style and at times as a lecture, this book ranges from philosophy to current affairs. Published by the City Mayors Foundation, an international nonprofit think tank devoted to urban affairs, it could be read as a primer or as a cautionary note for coming generations of urban politicians who must confront the challenges of sustainability.

Favro, a fellow of the City Mayors Foundation and an independent planning consultant, is the program manager at the Genesee Transportation Council in Rochester, New York, and has been a community activist, planning director, and CEO of a real estate development firm.

He has divided the book into three sections. The first, whimsically titled “Ambient Noise,” describes background influences on American life, such as capitalism, modernity, and racism. Capitalism, the main influence, depends on inexorable growth and expansion, which affects ecological cycles—drawing down aquifers, polluting waterways, and contributing to global warming—while also catalyzing consumerism and urban sprawl. In response, people turn to comprehensive planning. But, Favro notes, “If we were perfectly honest, we would acknowledge that our attempts at master planning and design of cities have been failures.”

The second section, “Governance,” seeks to explain why these planning failures occur. Favro argues that the root of the problem is that capitalism and democracy operate at different speeds. Urban mayors are expected to synchronize the “wiliness and swiftness of capitalism” with the “directness and deliberateness of democracy.” They must employ economic development as a tool that responds primarily to community interests or primarily to capitalist interests, or, if possible, evenhandedly to both.

The third section, “Modeling a Sustainable Urban Aesthetic,” takes up the design challenges of a sustainable future. It looks favorably on the emerging changes in architecture, planning, and zoning, holding that a sustainable America must have design as its heart and soul. Without explicitly referring to form-based zoning and traditional neighborhood design, it notes that architects are rediscovering the past and combining form and function, and urban designers and transportation planners are rediscovering accessibility and personal mobility. The question remains, will enough businesses spring up around sustainability to create transformative economic and social forces?

The hopeful conclusion reasserts the importance of diverse values to sustainability. Sustainable values should be the domain of all citizens in the democratic community, fostered by development of a moral common language that enables people to debate and agree on questions affecting the public good. But the prerequisite for sustainability will be a “vital democratic politics capable of harmonizing the claims of community with individual freedom,” Favro asserts.

This is a thought-provoking little book that deals with very big issues. It accurately describes the tensions inherent in American city design and development. It also could be considered relevant to other concerns of our current political culture, such as the Tea Party attacks on government and planning. If you are up for some rumination about what is driving today’s frustrating news cycle, as well as what may be shaping tomorrow’s cities, then you should spend some time pondering these hard constants.