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Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are theKeys to Sustainability Paperback – Bargain Price, 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 the Audio CD edition.
A convincing case...Pugnacious and contrarian The New York Times Turns conventional wisdom on its head and takes a clear-eyed look at what 'green' might truly mean San Francisco Chronicle
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This is the case made in Green Metropolis. It does an amazing job of making this conclusion seem obvious thus showing many flaws in mainstream environmentalist thought.
I thought his criticisms of Central Park and Park Avenue were completely off the mark, dead wrong. One of biggest issues that, to my mind, haunts the thesis of this book is how to make dense urban living palatable and even desirable for a range of classes of people. Central Park was conceived at the very same time that New York was beginning to "experiment" with the large apartment building. Buildings such as the Dakota (1880) were designed specifically to lure well heeled city dwellers away from single family homes (townhouses) and into denser multi-story buildings with luxury space and services. (sound familiar?) Over the next 50 years many more even larger apartment buildings were built on both sides of the Park which was one of the most important ingredients in creating a DESIRABLE dense neighborhood. Far from being a built "criticism" of the dense city (as Owen may perceive it) Central Park was an enabler of density. As wonderful as Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village of the 40's was, most "upper east side" types probably didn't want to live there then, and they certainly didn't in 1908.
Similar points can be made about Park Avenue. I assume he is referring to that portion of Park Avenue above Grand Central Terminal. This urban boulevard was conceived as cure for the urban blight of the Harlem and New York Railroad tracks (it covered the tracks) as well as an armature for dense luxury apartment building development on both sides. Yes, the ground floors of those buildings may seem a bit sterile to Owen (and others including myself)but the buildings well heeled occupants probably like it that way and can find all the urban vitality they want a block away on Madison and Lexington avenues respectively. Sure, Park Avenue is an "edge" or border between two similar neighborhoods, but that's what boulevards are supposed to do in urban planning. Park Avenue isn't a "criticism" of dense cities. The tree lined boulevard is one component in a tool box for making high density possible. They help establishes scale and define precincts in large citys. They don't negatively impact density in any meaningful way. Owen seems to miss this point. Why did Owen bother to pick on these two NYC features in the first place. Didn't he already establish Manhattan as his "gold standard" in the first chapter?
Owen is needlessly harsh and dismissive with Washington DC. He draws far too many erroneous conclusions from the hotel desk clerk who advises him to catch a cab for a 4 block trip. Yes, the central Mall area of DC is very vast and spread out and bereft of urban amenities. Distances are farther than they look and the buildings are by design over scaled to work in that setting. But that is just one district and its flaws are not caused by axial boulevards per se but by misapplied land use concepts contained in DC's "City Beautiful" era Beaux-Arts McMillan Plan of 1901 which created a vast central "monumental core" area of monumental structures set in gardens. Neighborhoods like Foggy Bottom (near GW) and Dupont Circle, just to name two that are outside the McMillan Plan area, are dense, walkable and contain townhouses and 5 to 10 story apartment buildings and have plenty of street amenities. As for the oft-sited building height restriction in Washington the vast majority of Manhattan apartment buildings within Greenwich Village, above 75th street and within the boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn, would fit within Washington DC's height restrictions. Sure, Washington as a whole hasn't reached Manhattan levels of density but it's not Phoenix either.
I believe that these are but three examples of how late 19th century planners sought to make density palatable at a time when cities were even grimier and more dangerous than they are today. A close look at FL Olmstead's writings and city planning projects of the late 19th century reveals a man who actively grappled during the latter half of his life with the very same issue that haunts Green Metropolis, that is, how to get Americans to want or at least accept living in dense cities. Parker and Unwin grappled with these very same issues in England at the turn of the century.
Nevertheless, I belive the fundemental thesis of this book is sound and Owen gets it out for all to see and react to with wit and conviction. While I wasn't expecting Owen to pull some sort of "blueprint" for a Manhattan-like "city of the future" out of the bag by the end of the book, I was still left wondering...OK so what do we do now? When the President is advocating both "green economy" initiatives AND $8,000 first time home buyer tax credits in "drive til you quality" suburbs in the same speech you are left wondering if anyone in the country besides Owen really sees how absurd and contradictory this. In the end, weaning Americans off the short term economic engine and emotional attachment of single family housing production and automobile oriented development may be a lot harder than weaning Afghan farmers off opium poppies.
Should be taken with a grain of salt, he has a huge anti-car bias and doesn't acknowledge the hurdle that it would be to get where he wants. But makes great argument, for the most part, on both sides of each debate.