When I first started to read the early glowing reviews of David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smarter, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. I bought it anyway, and I promptly had my mind blown. In a nutshell Owen’s thesis is this: big cities are inherently greener than the rural/suburban landscapes that many green authorities would have you believe are the platonic ideal of green living. That’s right, New York City is greener than Vermont. I read this book while on a trip to New York, which was too bad for my hosts. I provided them with near constant updates about why their city was one of the greenest on Earth. It got a little obnoxious. (Sorry, yall!)
Owen sets it up like this:
…We decided to make out first home in a Utopian community in New York state. For seven years we lived quite contentedly in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a lawn, a clothes dryer, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bill worked out to about a dollar a day. The Utopian community was Manhattan.
The reasons that New York is greener are varied. New Yorkers use less gasoline than the rest of us – way less (9 gallons per person per year). It’s possible to live in New York City and never get a driver’s license. Walking is a viable daily means of transportation. Public transportation is excellent. New Yorker’s activities take up remarkably less space and are accordingly more efficient. (The author gives the example of his workplace, the Conde Naste building. If built like a suburban office park, it would take up over 150 acres. And everyone would have to drive to get there.) Living spaces that share walls cut down on energy costs. New Yorkers live longer than the rest of us and are able to remain independent longer, too (all that walking is good for you). And so on.
In the second chapter, Owen lays out how the case of our oil dependency in this country and how well and truly screwed we all are as a result. It is impossible, Owen argues, to continue living anything close to the way that we have been. That’s a sobering assessment. We are going to have to change how we live dramatically whether we want to or not. The model that Owen puts forth as a solution is that of our largest cities. We need to live closer to one another in densely developed areas. We need to live in smaller spaces. Our cities need to be walkable and have excellent public transportation. Most difficult of all, we need to stop driving.
Along the way, Owen examines some of the “green” activities that may make us feel better, but are largely window dressing (or just plain wrong-headed) in the context of our oil addiction:
- Anything that eases traffic in urban areas (makes driving more appealing) is bad
- LEED “green” architecture is not so great (standards are difficult to document; does a poor job of putting buildings in context – i.e., a green office building that requires all of its workers to drive to/from work and out and back at lunch is not so green)
- Large Victorian-style parks (think Olmsted parks like Central Park, Prospect Park, Piedmont Park in Atlanta) that break up urban walking routes are utilized less than smaller neighborhood parks
- Locovorism is not a sustainable way for all of us to get all of our food
- Vertical farming in cities is lunacy
- Recycling may make you feel warm and fuzzy but is probably almost completely undone by your driving
- Anything involving two people living in a 5000 square foot house (no matter what kind of earth friendly flooring they choose) is bad
If you live in a suburban or rural area, this make is going to make you feel, depending on your attitude about such things, somewhere between a little bit and a lotta bit crummy. Don’t worry though, the author is right there with you. Owen lives in rural Connecticut and is trying to work through the same issues as the rest of us.
While I was reading the book, Owen penned a full page article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled, How Traffic Jams Help the Environment. It’s a good primer to Owen’s general philosophy. There was some negative reaction to the piece like this response at WorldChanging. Interestingly, the same organization, which bills itself as “bright green” has also championed Owen’s central premise – New York City is a model of green living. (WorldChanging also reports on European models for car free cities – worth a look.)
In short, Green Metropolis is well deserving of all of the early review praise that I read. I’ll add my own: Green Metropolis is a lucid, well-argued book that will force you to change the way you view our world. It is a must read if our environmental future is something that concerns you. Read it already.
This review is already much longer than most that we run here on BGB, and I feel like I could write about this thought-provoking book all day long. Still, I’m not really doing the book justice because I am scrambling to get this post out so that I can let you know this: David Owen will be participating in a lecture/reading/interview with WABE’s Valerie Jackson at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library tomorrow night (11/12) at 7PM. Free.