Review of “Green Metropolis”

New York, NY at night
Would you like to live here?

Note: I’ve decided to post a few book reviews on sustainability and related subjects. Please feel free to comment!

Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country about True Sustainability

Author: David Owen, 2009

David Owen makes a compelling case that the most environmentally friendly way for humans to live on this planet is in high-rise, densely packed cities that are definitely NOT car friendly. He offers Manhattan, NY as a great example, noting that with 1.5 million people living in 23 acres, they have to live small.

In such a tight space, owning a car is simply not practical for most people, because of the parking cost and frustration of driving as cars aren’t a priority on the roads; people live in smaller homes because of expensive housing, which then reduces purchasing anything but the necessities. All of which make walking, biking, or taking public transport to all shopping or work places that are also nearby means greenhouse gasses, trash, fuel, and water use are all reduced. New Yorkers’ average greenhouse gas production is 7.1 metric tons a year, versus a national average of 24 metric tons.

The typical actions that most suburban dwellers do to be more sustainable – composting waste, recycling, organic or local food purchases, and installing solar panels and high-efficiency windows – all amount to a tiny effect, often with bad side effects. Owen says do the boring stuff first, such as increasing the insulation in your attic and subfloors, use curtains and keep your thermostat nearer to the outdoor temperatures, cut down the number of car trips or even the number of cars, and reduce the square footage that you have to heat and cool.

Many of these things Owen hasn’t done himself, he admits, because the price of fuel isn’t low enough to make it a priority. Granted, both he and his wife work from home and have one car, so they have made a large change already.

His recommendation to make cars too expensive to own seems to run counter to his later suggestion that electricity costs should be priced on how efficiently it is used, which would mean NY would have very low rates instead of some of the highest – which would encourage more use. He doesn’t consider electric cars or tiny cars a solution because they still encourage people to spread out from work and shopping; the electric cars are a sore spot because you still have to get electricity from somewhere, and that may actually mean more electricity plants burning fossil fuels will have to be built to keep up with demand. In the eight years since he wrote this, however, solar technology has made huge strides and should be able to produce a lot of the power for the electric cars.

He bases many of his recommendations on how humans naturally react to their environment, but I think education and ease-of-use can also make things like green spaces more used. However, he doesn’t see the suburban dwellers’ change in behaviors to be something that can be built on; clearly education has done this along with making certain things like recycling easy. Continued education might influence more change, such as future home purchases that consider availability of public transport and a smaller home, for example.

One of the most glaring issues not covered are how healthy people are in these cities, since he seems to be concentrating only on the middle class who could afford alternatives including moving away from the city. These high prices have a devastating effect on the poorest residents.

He also doesn’t consider rain and the effects of hundreds of acres of impermeable surfaces on aquifers, downstream waterways, or the water treatment in the city. He thinks open spaces should be small parks (his best example was a completely paved vendor and carnival area), and green roofs don’t have much environmental impact for the amount of infrastructure they need.

He readily admits that his home out in the country is terribly unsustainable, as he constantly hammers on the distant one has to drive to do anything, the larger houses that are so wasteful, the SUVs that guzzle gas. Yet he has lived there for over 20 years, so he seems a bit hypocritical.

I listened to this as an audio book, and I admit that the thought of living, walking, and working with that many people all shoulder to hip doesn’t sound at all appealing to me. However, the version of high-density development in my town are narrow streets filled with average to large homes with alleys between them and a small back yard, all of which face other homes just a few feet away. I’ve always wondered who would want such a home, because it’s like the worst of apartment living with the noise and neighbors combined with the worst of owning a home with its less efficient heating and cooling costs, distance from work, and yard maintenance. Yet that’s what many people can afford to fulfill their dream of home ownership. If apartments were cheaper than owning a home, had good noise insulation, and were close to work and parks, then I agree that we should be building more of these than those sub-developments, but with rental rates higher than mortgage payments I doubt it will happen.

Owen is right as far as he goes that living in pedestrian-friendly cities is better for the environment and cost is the main factor for any fast changes, but I believe education beginning with children can create more lasting change.

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