Urban Is Good
Monty PYTHON used to do a sketch in which the host of a children’s television show taught such broad lessons as “how to play the flute.” Breezily, the host would suggest blowing through one end of the instrument and wiggling one’s fingers over the holes. In “Green Metropolis,” David Owen sets out in similar vein to show how people can “permanently reduce energy use, water consumption, carbon output and many other environmental ills.” The answer, in short, is to live in densely populated cities. Would that it were so easy.
Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes a convincing case that Manhattan, Hong Kong and large, old European cities are inherently greener than less densely populated places because a higher percentage of their inhabitants walk, bike and use mass transit than drive; they share infrastructure and civic services more efficiently; they live in smaller spaces and use less energy to heat their homes (because those homes tend to share walls); and they’re less likely to accumulate a lot of large, energy-sucking appliances. People in cities use about half as much electricity as people who don’t, Owen reports, and the average New Yorker generates fewer greenhouse gases annually than “residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average.”
And the carbon footprint of the hybrid-driving country dweller with her triple-paned windows, backyard composter and geothermal heat pump? Fuhgeddaboudit, Owen practically shouts: she’s still driving to work, to school, to shops and the post office. He doesn’t care if she’s powered by French fry grease or the juice of photovoltaic panels: “Wasted energy is wasted energy no matter how it’s generated.”
Even worse than the car itself is the sprawl and the energy-inefficient lifestyle that it enables — the duplication of infrastructure, larger houses with fertilized, irrigated yards, two-hour commutes. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may seem to decrease environmental impact (it certainly looks and smells better), but in fact it substantially increases that impact “while also making the problems . . . harder to see and to address.”
“Green Metropolis” challenges many cherished assumptions about easy-on-the-earth country living, though many of its revelations may not be revelatory to hardcore carbon counters, or to anyone who read Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article from which this book sprouted. Still, it contains some surprises (for example: it takes less energy and infrastructure to move people vertically, in counterweighted elevators, than horizontally). Pugnacious and contrarian, the book has a lot of fun at the expense of sentimental pastoralists, high-minded environmentalists and rich people trying to buy their way into higher green consciousness with expensive “eco- friendly” add-ons (photovoltaic panels on their suburban McMansions, say).
More generally, Owen attacks the anti-urban bias of the American environmental movement, from Thomas Jefferson through John Muir to the modern Sierra Club. He delineates how the movement has encouraged sprawl — by demonizing cities and exalting open space — and argues that they need to shift emphasis toward making urban living more “appealing and life enhancing.” According to Owen, the most critical environmental issues in dense urban cores aren’t carbon footprints but “old-fashioned quality of life concerns”: crime rates, bad smells, education. The more pleasant the city, the more people will stay in it, rather than fleeing to car-dependent suburbs — as Owen and his wife did when they left Manhattan for a leafy Connecticut town more than 20 years ago.
Of course, many environmental groups do work on building livable and affordable cities, even while others embrace a “buy it to preserve it” strategy (condemned by Owen as “Nature Conservancy brain”). Environmental groups, the author writes, should focus on “intelligently organizing the places where people are,” instead of where they aren’t. I would argue that if no one defends the places people are not, they won’t be people-free for long. Not only will we lose the idea of wilderness — which some consider essential to our human identity — but we’ll lose its invaluable services, like the protection of drinking water and the sequestration of carbon. (In general, concerns about clean water and air get scant shrift here, and New Yorkers are told they needn’t fret about conserving electricity, since they already use far less per capita than the national average. This reviewer, who is always looking for something new to unplug, is shocked. And doubtful.)
Waxing crankier, Owen takes some digs at solar power, net metering (which gives people credit for wind or solar power they deliver back to the grid) and distributed generation: he claims they spur growth and consumption in the ’burbs, though he doesn’t give their proponents a chance to rebut his charges, and many of his assertions have a “just so” flavor. He briefly disses locavorism as “arithmetical sleight of hand.” Yes, fruit trucked from California to Connecticut has a much lower “fuel per berry” expenditure than fruit Owen buys after making a special trip to a farm 20 miles away, but he ignores the value of supporting farmers so they don’t sell out to developers — not to mention common-sense route planning. Owen applauds the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for raising awareness of environmentally responsible construction but condemns it for encouraging high-priced, high-visibility add-ons (argon-filled windows) instead of non-sexy, lower cost, simpler measures (hand-cranked awnings and better insulation). He correctly notes the perversity of a system that rewards points for “maximizing open space” to companies that build on the corners of large lots in auto-dependent exurbs. Erecting a tower near a downtown bus stop would do significantly less environmental harm.
AFTER laying out what’s wrong with the car-dependent lifestyle, Owen offers some nifty but politically challenging prescriptions. For mass transit to work, he writes, cities must not only achieve a threshold of mixed-use density, but driving must become an exceedingly unpleasant alternative. Bring on the double- parked Fed-Ex trucks, the jaywalkers, potholes and scaffolding; reduce road capacity, banish free parking and raise bridge and road tolls. Traffic jams, he writes, “actually generate environmental benefits, because they urge drivers (and cab riders) either into the subways or onto the sidewalks.”
And don’t get Owen started on high- occupancy-vehicle (H.O.V.) lanes: they mostly just ease traffic! (The author considers anything that makes driving more agreeable, whether hands-free cellphones or recorded books or drive-through Starbucks, an environmental negative.) The real way to make an H.O.V. lane work, he says, is to eliminate regular lanes, increase the number of occupants required to enter the H.O.V. lane, and then charge those single-occupant cars, forced into slow-moving lanes, tolls. Then pray they’ll give up and join a carpool.
Manhattan may be able to teach the country about true sustainability, but where will those lessons assume bricks-and-mortar shape? We aren’t about to tear down our suburbs and force their inhabitants into dense urban areas. Owen admits that “how to apply that template remains a frustrating mystery.” Before giving up entirely, however, he hops in a jet to see if rapidly urbanizing China or India is doing any better (nope).
Ultimately, almost all of Owen’s potential solutions for treading more lightly on the planet rely on economics (“Environmental solutions that depend solely on will power are doomed to fail,” he notes). Raise the price of doing bad, while making good more attractive. Tax energy consumption and emissions. Enact policy measures that lead consumers to feel they have no choice but to find or create alternatives to solo automobile use.
It sounds good on paper, but there’s always going to be a sticking point: human nature. We all yearn for our own personal space, a little fresh air and elbow room. Owen doesn’t want to give up his charming but energy-inefficient house in rural Connecticut any more than I would (if I had one). And so he does what anyone with some extra cash and a conscience must: he buys and installs more insulation.