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.
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.
Such thinking, the author acknowledges, goes against America’s long antipathy towards urban life, perhaps best expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s description of big cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”
While he doesn’t share Jefferson’s dim view of urban morality, Owen doesn’t see New York’s ecological virtues as evidence of great civic piety, either. The city’s smart growth, in fact, seems more the result of geographical and historical accidents. Being surrounded by water, for example, Manhattan was forced to confine its sprawl. And because the city developed so long before automobiles, it wasn’t able to remake itself to truly accommodate car culture.
Such providence makes New York a difficult model to duplicate, and one of Owen’s consistent themes is that when it comes to environmental stress, cities are far from equal. He points to Los Angeles as a poster child for “metastatic outward growth” and complains that the commuter-centric city of Atlanta “has probably been the source of more bad transportation policy than any other in America.”
Owen’s focus on cars as an agent of sprawl tends to exclude other factors that spur the growth of suburbs. He makes only passing reference to quality of life issues – such as education, crime, and street noise – that drive city dwellers away from the urban core. And as Robert Bruegmann told readers in his book, “Sprawl,” migration from city centers is not unique to modern America, but rather a historical reality that goes back centuries, long predating the rise of the auto.
But it’s hard to quibble with an author who takes such pains to point out his own imperfections. Readers of Owen’s lighter books, such as the essays of domestic life he gathered in “Around the House,” already know that his chief charm is an abiding gift for self-effacement.
That quality is also evident in “Green Metropolis,” which begins with Owen’s confession that for all his professed devotion to urban density, he left Manhattan many years ago for a larger home in nearby Connecticut, becoming a part of the very problem he bemoans. He also confesses to a persistent affection for driving and big-box stores.
Owen offers a few suggestions as to how all Americans, even those of us in the ’burbs, might “apply the Manhattan template to our own lives, to the extent that we can.” But ultimately, “Green Metropolis” is important not for the answers it yields but the questions it raises – questions that should be part of the ongoing dialogue about the health of our planet.