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Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability Paperback – November 2, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. While the conventional wisdom condemns it as an environmental nightmare, Manhattan is by far the greenest place in America, argues this stimulating eco-urbanist manifesto. According to Owen (Sheetrock and Shellac), staff writer at the New Yorker, New York City is a model of sustainability: its extreme density and compactness—and horrifically congested traffic—encourage a carfree lifestyle centered on walking and public transit; its massive apartment buildings use the heat escaping from one dwelling to warm the ones adjoining it; as a result, he notes, New Yorkers' per capita greenhouse gas emissions are less than a third of the average American's. The author attacks the powerful anti-urban bias of American environmentalists like Michael Pollan and Amory Lovins, whose rurally situated, auto-dependent Rocky Mountain Institute he paints as an ecological disaster area. The environmental movement's disdain for cities and fetishization of open space, backyard compost heaps, locavorism and high-tech gadgetry like solar panels and triple-paned windows is, he warns, a formula for wasteful sprawl and green-washed consumerism. Owen's lucid, biting prose crackles with striking facts that yield paradigm-shifting insights. The result is a compelling analysis of the world's environmental predicament that upends orthodox opinion and points the way to practical solutions. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“[Green Metropolis] challenges many cherished assumptions about easy-on-the-earth country living... Pugnacious and contrarian, the book has a lot of fun at the expense of sentimental pastoralists, high-minded environmentalists and rich people trying to buy their way into higher green consciousness with expensive 'eco-friendly' add-ons (photovoltaic panels on their suburban McMansions, say).” —New York Times
“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.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Green Metropolis is an important contribution to our understanding of how we live.” —Boston Globe
“A marvelously clear-eyed analysis of the growing energy/environmental crisis.” —Hartford Courant
“David Owen always delights with his elegant insights and his challenges to conventional thinking. In this book, he does so again by puncturing the myth of ecological Arcadia and reminding us why living in cities is the best way to be green. It's a triumph of clear thinking and writing.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Einstein: His Life and Universe
“David Owen pumps some minty fresh air into the haze of green marketing. In his provocative new book, he turns conventional wisdom on its head and takes a clear-eyed look at what 'green' might truly mean in a nation of 300 million (and counting) in the 21st century.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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Top Customer Reviews
The problem with green thinking is that there's a whole heck of a lot of self-delusion going on, and when it comes to urban planning, David Owen has done a lot of looking into it, pointing out that at the end of the day, a lot of "green" purchases and behaviors are attempts to rationalize consumption without actually reducing it. Along the way, he steps on the toes of the great pastoral myth of environmentalism by showing how anti-city bias in conservation thinking has often served to promote the very urban sprawl it's supposed to be fighting. And Owen is hardly a global warming denialist or ecology "skeptic" either -- in fact, the primary focus of the book is on managing carbon footprints and just how poorly that's done.
Owen's dirty little secret is something urban planners and ecological experts have been promoting for years with little heed from the general public -- that the density of cities like New York is key to creating a low-consumption environment, since distances between home, work, and other activities are relatively small and therefore cars are generally unnecessary. Owen looks at carbon footprint in per capita terms, showing how the average New Yorker uses something like one third of the total oil consumption of a rural Vermonter, and points out the absurdity of building a "green" corporate campus (his prime example being Sprint/Nextel's in Kansas) so far away from a city that virtually all employees have to drive to work. He even goes as far as to attack the locavore movement, noting that because of the ability to pool resources (i.e. load lots of produce onto one big truck), a container of raspberries going from California to NYC can have a smaller carbon footprint than the same container grown in upstate New York.
Now the book isn't perfect -- Owen leaves a lot of loose ends and really doesn't do a lot of theorizing about solutions beyond the broad templates he outlines about transit-heavy city life, and his dislike of urban agriculture of the sort proposed by futurists seems rather inflexible and underinformed; his points about excessive open space (particularly Central Park, which he finds oversized and underutilized) are sensible in terms of walkability, but urban agriculture as such is still in its infancy. He seems to avoid the issue of concentrated air pollution in urban settings, a curious omission when dealing with urban environmental matters. (And, most curiously, Owen doesn't seem to offer any opinions on the works of Paolo Solieri, the creator of the concept of the arcology and seemingly one of the most relevant of all architects to his point, although Frank Lloyd Wright comes in for a drubbing due to his unrelenting support of suburban expansion.) But the book shines at pointing out the absurdities of the modern environmental movement (in the process tending to prove a theory I've long held about the environment/ecology section at bookstores, that the signal to noise ratio is heavily tilted in favor of noise from both sides) and functions as a call to the environmental movement to stop seeing urban life as the enemy.
When I read the first chapter of Green Metropolis, I was worried that my fears about this book might be confirmed. After all, the blurb says that the author is going to reveal how New York City is more sustainable than Snowmass, Colorado or Burlington, Vermont. Hmm, I thought, there's not much to that. People in NYC don't drive cars, they live on top and side-by-side of each other (so they share heating costs), and they have great transit. Why should any readers find it surprising that NYC is so sustainable?
I was kind of impatient, I suppose. I remember sitting in a hotel near the campus of Sprint, on about 110th St and Metcalf in Kansas City, Missouri (a national epicenter of sprawl!) and telling my sister that its not enough to say NYC is the ideal for sustainability. You can't turn this into Greenwich Village, right? In other words, that kind of insight is lacking because it offers no value for what policy should do about the problem of sprawl.
Moreover, I thought, why is David Owen singing the praises of NYC, when he moved from there to rural Northwestern Connecticut?
Owen must have known that, because this book seems to understand that its not enough to laud NYC. What this book does it go step-by-step through many of planning's existing antidotes to sprawl and reveal their limitations. This is a book about challenging the assumptions that govern current sustainability policy.
The problem, he says, is that New York was built not by policy makers with the right vision, but by lucky timing. It was good timing because most of the city was laid out before the car. What is even more important to realize, he says, is that it was only because of the inability of planners to exert their will upon NYC's urban form that it turned out so well. The best efforts of man didn't foul things up. Although zoning laws and modern planning had begun to take root as early as the 20s, professional planners didn't realize their will on NYC. Too many land decisions were already predetermined before zoning could force segregated land uses. New York succeeded in spite of the best intentions of policy.
Moreover, NYC continues to succeed mostly due to forces that are beyond the decision-making of consumers and policy makers. People choose transit because they don't have a better option. Given the choice, many New Yorkers might drive Smart ForTwo cars if they were available. Sure, there would be more fuel efficient cars on the road - but there would then be fewer walkers.
Owens works over so many of the hot ideas in sustainability - from traffic calming, to congestion pricing, to LEED, to HOV lanes, to locavorism, to new urbanism - and shows how each produces unintended impacts that offset much if not all of their value. LEED, for example, is undermined by its focus on becoming green by adding extra features to buildings. It is a dream for a builder, but is it really sustainable to build a 4,000 square foot house even if it has bamboo cabinetry and argon windows? Wouldn't it be more sustainable, he suggests, to just live more simply?
The problem that undermines efforts to make Kansas City sustainable are in many ways the same problems, albeit on a larger scale, that make it hard to build sustainability on the household level. Current policy focuses on making a better "bad:" i.e., low sulfur coal, hybrid cars, bamboo flooring. What would be better would be to shift more to the "goods:" walking, biking, and generally consuming less.
Once a suburb has been developed and infrastructure has been invested and built to service that new "place," the die is cast. People can build a solar panel, but they are still going to be driving just as far from work to home. You can have a Prius, but you are still driving it on roads. It's the miles, not the mileage. Its the low-density development that prevents people from walking or biking.
For individuals, it is much the same: once a bad decision has been made, even trying to improve on a "bad," is limited. Owen does own that house that is 1 mile from the nearest commercial entity. He could move back to NYC, but then someone else would move into his home and consume on the same scale. If anything, he reasons, its better for a work-at-home person to inhabit this space.
I think he recognizes the value of using market forces and incentives to change travel plans, but he seems to argue that the labor-saving capacity of oil is rarely equalized by policy. Oil is just too efficient, it seems. You have to deny its use - rationing its use only makes the auto mode more efficient - thereby reducing the chance that congestion will send a strong enough signal to travelers that they should just ride a bike.
I haven't been satisfied with Michael Pollan because he seems to ignore some of the critiques against his ideas. I.E. - if I consume "local", do I have to give up coffee, gasoline, and most anything made with foreign minerals? How about the 2 or 3 billion who will be left to go hungry when we eliminate agriculture at scale? I have appreciated the ability of Bill McKibben to critique the problems of our current lifestyle. Then again, I am not sure he has spoken adequately about their solutions.
Upon reading Owen, I am left with a feeling of the nuances and tensions within many of the questions surrounding the sustainability of people and cities. I think this book has a place for the bookshelves of a policy maker or in the syllabi of some college planning courses. Riverhead Press says this is a book about the environment. Really, it is a book about urban planning. The author makes reference to Jane Jacobs, to Christopher Alexander, to Robert Moses, and to many of the nation's great land-use planners.