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Reviewed by:
  • Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt
  • Jana Cephas (bio)
Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt. By Steven A. Moore. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Pp. xvi+243. $65/$34.95.

Much of the current discussion surrounding sustainability has concerned the development of environmentally sound products, the correct implementation of "best practices," and the role of governmental bodies in regulating polluting industries. This has generated considerable concern about correctly defining sustainability and finding adequate solutions to the problems of the unsustainable city. In contrast, this book presents new notions of sustainability by emphasizing the role of "public talk"—that is, conversations about the urban environment—in the successful development of the sustainable city.

Steven Moore, director of the Graduate Program in Sustainable Design at the University of Texas and codirector of the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development, proposes that the common bond shared by three exemplary sustainable cities is the presence of public talk specifically about politics, the environment, and technology. Because different types of public talk lead to different results, no single type of conversation can ensure sustainable outcomes everywhere. Sustainable outcomes emerge from the public talk specific to a locale; no generalized definition of sustainability nor a generalized solution to the problem is possible. Consequently,Moore argues that solutions to crises of sustainability can only arise from a locale through the "stories" or "dominant narratives" constructed within that community and reflecting its attitudes toward politics, the environment, and technology.

The first chapter outlines Moore's conceptual approach to sustainability, technology, and the city. The middle portion of the book presents what he refers to as the "thick" stories of Austin, Texas, in the United States; Curitiba, Brazil; and Frankfurt, Germany—presented through qualitative case studies charting their paths toward sustainability—and the "thin" quantitative analyses documenting these cities through maps and statistical data. The last three chapters lay the groundwork for Moore's proposal for developing a sustainable narrative, which he terms "abductive tools," aimed to stimulate public talk.

Although the case studies generate interesting data and analysis, the real value of the book lies in the conceptual framework based on public talk that Moore uses to analyze these cities, a framework he claims can then be applied to other urban areas. In understanding and analyzing how residents, municipal officials, and business leaders construct and participate in public conversations about their city, its environment, and its technologies, one can then begin to construct strategies to rectify unsustainable practices. Be forewarned that readers seeking "best practices" guidelines, quick-fix [End Page 518] solutions, or new techniques for urban planning will be disappointed, as Moore is more interested in providing a critical analysis of the current notions of sustainability capable of catalyzing action than he is in presenting positive solutions. Accordingly, his book might have been more appropriately titled Alternative Theories of the Sustainable City.

This book will find its greatest use among those interested in the intersection of politics, technology, and urban development, and it will be of particular interest to historians examining the social construction of technology. Although it is questionable whether sustainability really does, or should, constitute the dominant social narrative of the United States—as Moore argues—the application of social theory to notions of sustainability and how communities perceive urban politics and technology enriches the current discourse on technology and culture. However, coexistence of an array of stories, with sustainability as simply one of the many rather than as a dominant narrative, is perhaps a more accurate if not more popular conception of the role of sustainability within the broader culture.

With its rich discussion of philosophical and methodological foundations, its clear presentation, and its engaging narrative style, this book can be read straight through as a complete text, or piecemeal as distinct case studies, or as a source book enhanced by the generous bibliographies closing each chapter. Ultimately, it is really about agency, about noting the collective human actions which, through the rubric of public talk, drive social change. Moore may attribute far more effective power to the agency of citizens than actually exists in the cities examined. Consequently, the technologies of sustainable...


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pp. 518-519
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