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Green Metropolis

A New Yorker writer examines that civic paragon of green living: New York City.

By / September 16, 2009

David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker whose interests include global ecology, has examined numerous communities across America and discovered one that strikes him as a model of environmental efficiency. That community is New York City, and in Green Metropolis, his latest book, Owen tells readers what green-conscious citizens can learn from Gotham’s example.

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Owen realizes, of course, that the Big Apple isn’t the first place that comes to mind when most people think of reducing their carbon footprint. Noisy, crowded, and covered largely by concrete, New York seems instead to be the very antithesis of environmental stewardship.

Anticipating his critics, Owen concedes that when calculated by the square foot, “New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than any other American region of comparable size.”

But plot those same negative effects by resident or household, says Owen, and Manhattan gets the blue ribbon from Mother Nature.

“New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption,” Owen writes.

Because car ownership in Manhattan is so inconvenient, New Yorkers often use public transit or walk, which conserves gasoline and promotes good health. “The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T,” Owen tells readers.

New York has achieved its efficiencies because people live closely together – the principle of urban density so loudly touted by champions of the modern “smart growth” movement. If New York City’s 8 million residents lived in the same density as the quaint Connecticut community that Owen calls home, they’d “require a space equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey,” he notes as a caution against the dangers of suburban sprawl.

New York’s low per-capita energy use and its embrace of public transit and walking are practices that “the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate, as the world’s various ongoing energy and environmental crises deepen and spread in the years ahead,” Owen adds.


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