December 19, 2009

BOOKS: Green Metropolis, David Owen (2009)

Back to nature! That's been the rallying cry of the environmental movement for decades now. If only we would all just return to the land and grow our own food and get out of those smelly, polluted cities, we could make a dent in the environmental crisis. And for the most part, we've bought in to that narrative; we're all convinced that living on a farm in Vermont or Montana would be a planet-friendly thing to do.

Not so fast, says Owen. It turns out that the most environmentally friendly place in the US isn't Vermont. It's Manhattan. On a per-capita basis, Vermonters use 3.5 times as much gasoline and 4 times as much electricity as Manhattanites do. New York City is so energy efficient that it is singlehandedly responsible for making New York state the lowest per-capita user of electricity.

There are two reasons for Manhattan's low energy use, and Owen argues that we need to find ways to introduce them to our other large cities. First, population density is high enough to make a truly efficient public transit system possible; second, mixed-use neighborhoods mean that it is more convenient to do most errands on foot or bicycle than by car.

Compare, for instance, Owen's current home in suburban Connecticut to his previous New York apartment. The closest thing to walk to in the suburbs is his mailbox, 150 yards away. Walking that distance from the front door of his apartment building could have taken him to "six or seven restaurants, a shoe-repair shop, a liquor store, two grocery stores, various doctors' offices, a pharmacy, and a half-dozen large apartment buildings."

And because there's so much to see, people are further encouraged to walk in the city; psychologically, walking through a busy landscape makes the walk seem shorter than a walk of the same distance through an empty one. One of the places that New Yorkers don't walk is through Central Park; anyone who needs to cross the 3/4 mile park is more likely to take a cab than someone walking the same distance along a busy avenue.

High-density population, combined with smaller living spaces, also saves energy because it's cheaper to heat/cool your home, and because you're less likely to buy a lot of stuff you don't need when you don't have anywhere to put it.

Owen also points out that many of the things we do, thinking that we're making things better, are only going to make things worse. Adding new highway lanes may decrease traffic in the short term, but what we really need to do is make driving less practical and convenient, not more. The various programs to certify energy-efficient building projects turn out to reward behaviors that do very little good for the environment, and may actually do a fair amount of harm. And Owen rips to shreds the nonsense of the "locavore" movement, the idea that we should eat only food that's grown and produced locally.

This is an eye-opening book that will reshape the way you think about what is and isn't good for the environment; it's a solid piece of contrarian journalism, and entertaining reading to boot.

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