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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Green Metropolis: David Owen’s urban manifesto

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 29, 2009

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I've written before about how rural utopias usually aren't as environmentally benign as they seem, while urban places - compact, walkable cities, suburbs, and towns - encourage lifestyles that are very low-impact on a per-capita basis.  It's one of the basic premises of smart growth.  David Owen, author of the new book Green Metropolis, understands this and believes the message must be spread.

NYC's Teardrop Park (by: pocketmonstered/DDDiana, creative commons license)I was asked to write a review of Green Metropolis for Solutions, a new academic journal dedicated to "solving the mounting environmental, social and economic problems of our time."  (Note: the website is only partially constructed.)  Excerpted from my full review, here's some of what I have to say:

"Owen's 2004 article, 'Green Manhattan,' published in the New Yorker, was a breath of fresh air for those of us working on urban issues and sustainable alternatives to suburban sprawl. In 'Green Manhattan,' Owen made the point that when we measure environmental impacts, whether emissions, waste, or land consumption, on a per capita basis, dense cities are, in fact, the greenest places and, in the US, Manhattan is the greenest of them all. In his article, Owen clearly articulated what some of our new work at the NRDC was all about: reducing our per capita environmental footprint by finding more efficient ways to grow.

"But Owen was also right in that article to assert, as he does again in his new book, that a lot of environmentalists and a lot of the public still do not understand this sort of environmental calculation. When 'Green Manhattan' was published, I sent a copy to all of my organization's trustees, and, to my dismay, within an hour of my message, one of my colleagues had fired off a rebuttal. My colleague, who was invested in addressing problems of urban waste and pollution in New York, was not entirely wrong in fearing that Owen - and, by extension, I - were undermining his work by suggesting that Manhattan was environmentally OK the way it was. NYC subway, Times Square (public domain, photographer unknown)But he was wrong in failing to acknowledge that, in many ways, Manhattan was and remains a very good environmental model, with its highly efficient use of land and walkable neighborhoods. And that, if we could bring the per capita environmental footprint of America closer to that of Manhattan, we would be achieving a great green success . . .

"Green Metropolis, which expands on the themes Owen introduced in 'Green Manhattan,' could not be timelier. The book is subtitled 'What the city can teach the country about sustainability,' and there is indeed a critical story to be told on the subject. Increasingly, planners and policy wonks get it, but the public, who elect our decision-makers and testify at development hearings, do not, and we need someone like Owen to help spread the word, in non-wonky English.

"To a great extent, Owen accomplishes this. Especially in his well-researched opening chapter, Owen shows how environmentally efficient a large city like New York really is, and how failing to seize upon this fundamental truth can lead us in wrong directions. Bryant Park, NYC (by: Project for Public Spaces)He is absolutely right, for example, in pointing out that the biggest environmental challenge facing a place like New York is not, as many believe, how to reduce carbon emissions from lighting, heating and cooling buildings, a category in which New Yorkers already lead the nation on a per capita basis (like 'putting skinny people on diets,' Owen writes). It is, instead, how to address perceptions of inferior public school quality and a lack of public safety, which diminish the city's ability to attract and retain residents to its efficient lifestyle . . ."

The book contains useful chapters on transportation, parks, the inherent energy efficiency of buildings in urban locations, whether or not they employ the latest green technology, and so on.  Each is filled with information and interesting anecdotes, and Green Metropolis makes a good introduction to and overview of these subjects from the point of view of an urbanist.  I would recommend it especially to someone newly interested in these subjects as a good place to start.

I do think the book has some flaws, unfortunately, including one very important one.  But you'll have to read my full review to know what it is.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Ben WelleSep 30 2009 09:43 AM

Kaid, excellent review. I'm about halfway through and share some of these same feelings. On the misgivings you write of in the review, in fact, I was just thinking this morning on my bike ride in about how unfair it is to use Washington as a punching bag on how cities should be walkable and dense. I think DC has nearly the highest percentage of residents who walk to work at ~11% -- more than New York (at ~10%) I believe.

I wholeheartedly agree with Owen's main premise, but I think he tries too hard to fill pages with provocative thoughts. I feel so far that he lacks a more nuanced preference for density.

And you're right, I keep on wondering, when are you going to give a mea culpa on why you continue to live in a leafy country town?

Thanks for such a good review.

Kaid @ NRDCSep 30 2009 11:18 AM

Thanks, Ben. Readers, click on Ben's name above to catch his own excellent blog.

John BaileyOct 2 2009 11:57 AM

Kaid -- Great post and I just finished your longer review in Solutions. The real unfortuante part about picking on D.C. is that if most U.S. cities could accomplish D.C.'s level of walkability that would be the coup of the century! I'm all for setting the bar high, but NYC level density/transit service/walkability just ain't gonna happen. Still look forward to reading the book.


Green Metropolis on September 30, 2009 11:58 AM
I wonder if a new zeitgeist will emerge around the city as the solution to sustainability.  Green Metropolis, a new book by the New Yorker’s David Owen, stands conventional eco-wisdom on its head and argues that cities like New York are far gree...

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