The Design Observer Group


Posted 05.10.10


Timothy Beatley

Green Metropolis


New York City, view from the Empire State Building. [Credit: davidsteitz via Flickr]

To say that we Americans are conflicted about cities is an understatement: it's a toss-up which we dislike more — sprawl or density.

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability [Riverhead Books, 2009], by journalist David Owen, will at once stir the pot and leave it boiling. A book-length expansion of a provocative essay published in The New Yorker in 2004, the book centers on what seems like a counterintuitive argument. "Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams," Owen writes at the start, "but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. In fact, by the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States." (page 2)

That's a big claim, and Owen's overarching — and in some ways overreaching — point is that in our drive to be greener and more sustainable we've gotten it backward. We might focus on solar energy, wind farms, efficient buildings, smart cars, waste recycling, rainwater harvesting, etc. — but so long as we continue to aspire to leafy suburbs or off-the-grid rural self-sufficiency, we will contribute to an ecological endgame — the "tremendous waste" caused by "the helter-skelter residential development which has turned out to be America's true manifest destiny." (24)

Owen is a spirited writer, and he makes a compelling case for the advantages of high-density living. His statistics-based argument for Manhattan is impressive. The island has a population density of about 67,000 per square mile, "more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole and roughly thirty times that of Los Angeles." (3) Some 82 percent of Manhattanites walk, cycle or take public transit to work. "A pedestrian crossing Canal Street at rush hour can get the impression that New York is home of every car ever built," he says, "but Manhattan actually has the lowest car-to-resident ration of anyplace in America." (8) Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are very low. The typically smaller living quarters mean less energy for heating and cooling, less stuff, less waste. Owens sums it up: "Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, enables most of them to get by without owning cars, encourages them to keep their families small, and forces the majority to live in some of the most energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings." And, he adds: "It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into." (3)


Los Angeles. [Credit: conbon33 via Flickr]

Owen's point is plain. Let's dispense with feel-good eco-projects and techno-fixes, with green gadgets and smart gizmos: what we need to get right is the basics of urban form. “In terms of sustainability, dense cities have far more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns.” (13) And the "crucial fact" about sustainability, he argues, "is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a 'sustainable' house, office building, or household appliance, for the same reason that there can be no such thing as a one-person democracy or a single-company economy." (40)

Working from this central argument, Owen skillfully develops several important sub-themes. He rightly questions our national proclivity to accommodate cars and traffic. He criticizes congestion pricing, pioneered in London, because the reduced traffic "increases the productivity of solo driving, and that increases the incentive to drive — a bad result for the environment." (148) He doubts the efficacy of mini-cars like the Smart Fortwo, a two-seater from Daimler AG, or the City Car, a concept vehicle created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The super-small car, he writes, "is a good idea only if you believe that not being able to find a parking space is an environmental problem, and that dense urban areas have something to gain from getting pedestrians off their feet and into cars." (160)

The better course would be to pursue policies and plans that make it harder to drive, and that actually take city space away from cars. (As Larry Beasley, former planning director of Vancouver, put it, when making the case for density: “Congestion is our friend.”) To this end the author endorses a number of sensible and low-tech solutions, such as bans on right turns at red lights and what he calls "creative jaywalking," which is "an environmental positive, because it makes traveling on foot easier." (183) He is eloquent on the value of traffic calming techniques, from the lowly speed bump to more sophisticated strategies, such as changes in the texture, shape and elevation of roadways as well as shared space solutions that blur the boundaries between auto, bicycle and foot traffic through the use of street furniture, plantings, et al. And he points out the "primitive (and mostly unintentional) calming techniques" that result from New York City's messy and chaotic streets, including "potholes, double-parked FedEx trucks, jaywalkers, dog walkers, crosswalks jammed with pedestrians and baby carriages, protruding Dumpsters, foot-ball throwing teenagers, utility workers smoking cigarettes near barricaded manholes, high-rise construction equipment, building scaffolding, horse-mounted traffic cops, bicycle messengers, and gridlocked intersections. . . . " (186-187) And he emphasizes that in Manhattan the frustrations of driving are counterbalanced by the ease of walking. Owen’s excellent chapter, "The Great Outdoors," about the links between urban density, walking and being out-of-doors, is worth a careful read. Compactness is the key component, of course. “A resident of a dense city almost can’t help logging at least an hour or two outside every day, just doing things like walking to work, walking to lunch, walking to the subway, and walking to perform various errands.” (179)


Commuting in the Newhall Pass, Los Angeles County. [Credit: respres via Flickr]

Just as good is "Liquid Civilization," the author's chapter on the past, present and future prospects of our oil-dependent lives and fossil-fuel economy. "Every serious discussion of the environment . . .," Owen notes, "is ultimately about oil." I especially appreciate his deft linking of our fossil-fuel economy — our increasing extraction of the world's oil reserves to power lifestyles that in turn become ever more dependent on that oil — with our easy-mortgage housing bubble — which enabled so many Americans to buy far-flung houses that demand extreme commuting and exacerbate our petro-dependence. "We Americans have borrowed against the world’s store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes," he writes, "and we have used that energy leverage to construct a way of life that will cease to be sustainable the moment we can no longer cover our monthly payments." (60)

I also appreciate Owen's effort to compare two different approaches to sustainability: on the one hand, the many small steps and individual actions that have collective impact; and on the other, the broader structures that enable systemic change. For Owen the superiority of the second approach is clear. Sustainability, he says, is "a context, not a gadget or a technology." (40) Dense cities provide this context; they offer a framework in which greener living relies less upon individual choices — or sacrifices — and more upon land-use and transit patterns that make green living almost automatic. Personally I am not ready to give up on the power of individual commitment, but Owen is right: larger structures make it easier to be an environmentalist. They integrate it into daily routine. “The city’s efficiencies, like the efficiencies of all dense urban cores, are built into the fabric of the place. . . ." (43)

As part of this theme, of individual versus collective action, Owen notes the anti-urban bias of the early republic (he points especially to the founder of my university, Thomas Jefferson) and also of mainstream environmentalism, and the unintended results. Writing about the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign, for example, he notes a paradox: "[T]he Sierra Club itself has been a major contributor to sprawl, because the organization's anti-city ethos, which has been indivisible from its mission since of time of John Muir, has fueled the yearning for fresh air and elbow room which drives not only the preservation of wilderness areas but also the construction of disconnected residential developments and daily hundred-mile commutes." (24) This is a solid point, worth reflection.


Manhattan, temporary plaza in Times Square. [Credit: NYDOT]

But while Owen’s overarching arguments are sound, parts of Green Metropolis seem to me troubling. In his zeal to make the case, Owen is forceful. Sometimes too much so: the tone is often categorical, even harsh. He takes narrow-thinking swipes at Portland, Oregon (where ramp-metering caused freeway speeds to increase) and Curitiba, Brazil (where the pioneering bus rapid transit system let to greater prosperity and more car ownership), and at leading figures like Amory Lovins (for advocating super-efficient cars) and William McDonough (for designing LEED-certified buildings in greenfield sites). Owen is also dismissive of some heroes of the international green cities movement, like Herbert Girardet, and — full disclosure — he takes me to task (for lauding the efficacy of high-occupancy-toll lanes in my book Green Urbanism).

In emphasizing sustainability as context not gadget, Owen discounts the value of municipal recycling programs, the local food movement, the U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED certification system, carbon offsets, solar energy and distributed power systems — essentially any program or policy that claims to promote green living in non-urban contexts. Owen's devaluing of solar energy — largely because photovoltaics work so well on freestanding buildings far from urban cores — is particularly unfortunate. Owen is correct to argue that energy savings from efficiency — reduced demand — are the most cost-effective kind of savings; yet he seems willing to ignore that these savings will not be enough. In addition to reducing demand we will need to increase supply — and after all, even those efficient Manhattan high-rises depend upon the burning of fossil fuels.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of Green Metropolis is its singular focus. Concentrating on the qualities of any individual city, even one as compelling as Manhattan, is inevitably a constraint. For there are different approaches and various models for encouraging green urbanism — there have got to be, since New York is too exceptional to serve as the rule. Owen grants this point, briefly; and to be sure, in Green Metropolis the use of Manhattan is more polemical than practical. Yet even as he praises Manhattan for its energy efficiency, he misses what could be a key point: Owen says little about the delight, vitality or beauty of large cities. As a chronicler of urban life, he is no Michael Sorkin or Jane Jacobs (though he often quotes Jacobs). His view of New York is oddly abstracted. He conveys little affection or fondness for cities, little personal passion for urban life, and Manhattan is no exception. And perhaps for this reason there is little acknowledgement that urban and natural, which Owen presents as opposing values, can be harmonized to produce the biophilic city, the city which offers residents meaningful chances to connect with nature.


Rural living. [Credit: Sam M Beebe/Ecotrust via Flickr]

Owen's intellectualized approach is perhaps explained by the backstory of the book. The author is upfront early on about the fact that he and his family lived in Manhattan for a few years, but moved out more than 20 years ago and settled in an 18th-century house in a wooded exurb in northwest Connecticut. Though Owen uses this to good narrative effect — acknowledging that "the move was an ecological catastrophe" (5) — it's still unsettling. The message is qualified ("do as I say, not as I do"), and the author himself becomes another object lesson in the difficulties of selling high-density living to Americans (". . . I love living three minutes from a golf course, and I have never truly regretted moving away from Manhattan . . . " he says (323)). Still, it's hard not to wonder: Why doesn't he move back to the city whose virtues he so eloquently enumerates? Toward the end Owen admits that he is often asked this question, and he justifies his exurban lifestyle — somewhat defensively — by pointing to his and his wife's relatively energy-efficient lifestyles. "As long as two-hundred-plus-year-old houses in small New England towns continue to exist and be inhabited," he says, "it's probably not a bad thing for them to be inhabited by people like us, since we work at home and therefore don't have to drive anywhere to work." (316)

At the very end Owen says that after his New Yorker article appeared, he got a phone call from a reader who told him that the article had "changed her life" and convinced her to sell her house in a "sprawling subdivision in California." But the reader then asked him to tell her the name of the small town where he lived — because that's where she wanted to move. "You see," he says, "there's the challenge." This shouldn't really be surprising. For all its virtues Green Metropolis will, I suspect, appeal more to the head than the heart.