-Reviewed by Jodie C. Liu
Unlike his minuscule New York apartment, his house in Connecticut was flanked by wildlife, much closer to the pastoral ideal that many environmentalists have long sought. But in Green Metropolis, Owen sets out to explain why thoroughly unnatural-looking New York City, and not the house in the forest, is the paragon of green living.
Living green comes down to space and density, Owen argues. While homes that are thinly spread across the land exude environmental appeal – they appearing more integrated into nature, and they seem to retreat from rather than intrude on their surroundings – they actually necessitate a heavy dependence on oil. Owen considers that to be the worst side effect of suburbia. Simple tasks like going to work and obtaining food require driving, making American society an oil-fed “liquid civilization.” Structures in Manhattan, on the other hand, are so tightly knit that residents naturally prefer to use their own feet or public transport over cars. Anything that makes driving less convenient, Owen argues – from Manhattan-style congestion to high gas prices to highway traffic jams – are good for the environment. It may seem absurd from a professional urban design standpoint, but from an environmental perspective, Owen says, it makes sense for “people who design highways [to] apply themselves to making driving more infuriating.”
The problem with suburbia is the space: structures can afford to be larger, and can purport to be environmentally safe by incorporating the latest in green construction trends. Slapping solar panels on a roof does promote sustainable energy, Owen acknowledges, but the environmental costs of size can dwarf the benefits if the home is in the 5,000-square-foot range. And, he argues, new technologies like geothermal heating systems and photovoltaic cells can’t compare to old-fashioned density. By occupying significantly less room than suburban homes and being stacked upon one another, apartments reduce energy expenditure and wasted space.
That’s the beauty of Manhattan, Owen argues. He recounts being challenged at an environmental conference by a fellow attendee who charged that none of the methods Owen championed were really methods at all – they didn’t require changing anything. Owen replied that this is exactly the point. And New York City is not the only example Owen cites. “Almost any large old city in Europe,” Owen explains, “where the main population centers arose long before the automobile, and therefore evolved to be served by less environmentally disastrous means of getting around” also capitalizes on this built-in environmental efficiency.
Of course, Owen still lives in that house in Connecticut. If New York City is so great, why does Owen still live in the ’burbs? Owen explains that even if he were to move, he would not be reducing the environmental impact of his home, because someone else would just move in. “We have built our country as we have built it, and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over,” Owen reasons. Instead, he says, what is key in the decades ahead is to move away from development in places that “exacerbate critical environmental problems” and direct our attention towards making cities and other high-density areas more attractive to all Americans.
Excerpt: “Most of the products, technologies, and practices popularly touted as sustainable are not sustainable at all. Driving a gas-electric hybrid automobile is more environmentally benign, mile for mile, than driving a Hummer, but hybrids are not sustainable, because they require petroleum and the world’s supply of petroleum is finite. Buying locally grown food can put interesting, wholesome meals on people’s dinner tables, but locavorism is not sustainable as a strategy for feeding the world, or even northwestern Connecticut, because spreading populations across arable regions at densities low enough to make agricultural self-sufficiency feasible would be an environmental and economic disaster. A private mini-hydroelectric plant powered by a rushing stream may enable its owner to disconnect from the public power grid, but such power plants are not sustainable for anyone but their owners, because the earth’s population could not survive in any arrangement of dwellings which would enable every residence to generate its own electricity. In the very long run, of course, life itself is unsustainable, no matter what we human beings do or fail to do, because the sun will eventually burn out. Over time spans shorter than eons, though, uncertainties abound. The one inescapable reality is that the way we live now is non-sustainable indefinitely….
*Photo courtesy Daquella manera.