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.

Mountain mint

I’ve got a second year of Narrowleaf Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)  growing, and usually it pulls in every pollinator around. But on June 18, it was quite cool (76 degrees F), and not a single bug could be seen on the mountain mint. Yesterday afternoon, I had my camera out in the hot afternoon (90 degrees) and it was covered. Whew! Here’s some the visitors.

Continue reading “Mountain mint”

Echinacea purpurea - purple coneflower, white version

Pollinator week!!

National Pollinator Week is here! In 2007, the U.S. Senate designated a week in June to help our declining pollinator populations. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior designated June 19-25 as National Pollinator Week.

A local event that promises lots of ideas is the Durham Pollinator Garden Tour. This is the inaugural tour, and tickets and maps can be found at http://durhamgardentour.com/. The tour is another production of Keep Durham Beautiful, Inc., which has great programs all year long. Tickets can be bought by the car, so gather some of your friends and make a day of it!

swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

You can find other events at Pollinator Partnership.

To kick off the week, I found a stand of swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) in RTP on Sunday, but only one monarch caterpillar was in sight. I wasn’t dressed to go wading in the stand to find more—snake boots are a must!

Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus
Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus

 Nearby was a stand of Indian hemp, which is also a native popular with pollinators, but rather aggressive; I’ve got a stand of it on my property that grows exponentially each year. It’s related to mikweeds and even exudes milky sap that is irritating to human skin.

Indian hemp, Apocynum cannabinum
Indian hemp, Apocynum cannabinum

In Raleigh, Helen Yoest’s nonprofit, Bee Better, is having a raffle of a beautiful  photo encaustic work by Jayne Walther. Look for her post on June 15 on FaceBook. Bee Better’s mission is to “help homeowners build better backyards for birds, bees, & butterflies. Our work focuses on ecoregion 231, Southeastern Mixed Forest Province, including the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Maryland.” I’m a member of this group, and we have interesting workshops and meetings about every month.

 

So get out there, get some ideas, and plant a small garden for the pollinators!

Visiting the Chatham Mills Pollinator Paradise Garden

Debbie Roos is the Chatham County Agricultural Extension Agent and is building a showcase garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. Designed to show local gardeners and farmers how to use native plants to increase their pollinator population and diversity, it’s also a lovely place to visit. Then you can grab lunch at the Chatham Marketplace co-op, or have a drink from Starrlight Mead, and sit on the patio surrounded by beauty.

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The Dung Beetles among Us

Today, I tackled the strip of pine, blackberry, and tulip popular growth behind the fence with the weed-whacker, armed with a blade. Then I spotted one of the sweet spires laying on its side, dug up. I cut off the weed whacker and redug the hole, promising to bring it some water when I went to get my own. Then I heard something moving on the end of the woods. It paused, then another rustle through the pinestraw. I saw a plant waving and cautiously took a look. Two large beetles with a ball of something!

Continue reading “The Dung Beetles among Us”

Rubus hybrid - Blackberry 'Kiowa'

I have blackberries!

I made a quick walk around the garden tonight – the ‘Kiowa’ blackberries (Rubus hybrid) are ripening. This is their second year, a passalong from a friend in Orange County who was thinning them out. Don’t believe the descriptions about “upright canes”; they desperately need to be staked. kiowa-blackberry-rs

That’s an elderberry leaf in the picture, and they are in full bloom. There’s a Sambucus canadensis ‘York’ that I bought last spring, and ‘Ranch’, from a cutting sold by Norm’s Elderberry Farms each spring. I bought four twigs each of four varieties three years ago, and this was the only one that made it – live and learn. I bought two each of two varieties last year and they have done much better; I just need to figure out where to plant them. elderberry-flower-rs

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is looking good this year; grown from NCBG seed and planted last spring.

swamp-milkweed-rs

Somehow, the seeds I planted for purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) have come up white:

White_Coneflower-rs

Last thing I did was plant brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) from the NC Native Plant Society’s picnic last weekend in the meadow, and an evergreen dwarf form of hobblebush (Agarista populifolia) named ‘Leprechaun’ from a sale at NCBG, planted along the front porch on the eastern side.

I’ve got the Blues…

Five of them, to be exact. I picked up  ‘The Blues’ little bluestem grass in gallon containers last fall, usually on clearance. Schizachyrium scoparium is a clumping grass that you may have noticed in the fall, when it turn an orangey-gold color that lasts all winter. It gets about two feet tall and can be either green or blue. I really like blue grass, so I chose a cultivar.

Continue reading “I’ve got the Blues…”

Visit to a Plant Conservation Preserve

Did you know that Butner, NC sits on some rare rock? Diabase rock has a fairly high pH and lies close to the surface; it’s often quarried as gravel, and that’s why Sunrock operates a quarry there. Most of the Piedmont has acidic soil (low pH), so that rare rock has uncommon plants for this area that grow over it.

Continue reading “Visit to a Plant Conservation Preserve”