Book review: Green Metropolis

David Owen’s book Green Metropolis, an expansion of his 2004 New Yorker article on the environmental benefits of cities, puts forth two propositions: first, that urban living is inherently more resource-efficient and therefore greener than suburban or rural living; and second, that environmentalism has historically been tainted with an anti-urban bias that prevents greens from fully embracing some of the best strategies for protecting the planet.

The first proposition is, or should be, fairly uncontroversial. Because greater density means greater resource efficiency, it follows that concrete jungles like New York City are among the most eco-friendly places in the country. On a per capita basis, city dwellers tend to use less resources for all of the obvious reasons: homes are smaller; public transportation is better; vertical buildings shrink the distance between residence, work, and shopping; etc. This isn’t exactly a new story, but Owen tells it well, leavening a heavy dose of Jane Jacobs with personal observations of his own move from a Manhattan apartment to a Connecticut farmhouse.

(**Update**: David Owen just published an article in Worldchanging elaborating this point.)

The book is, fortunately, not simply a screed against suburbia, or at least not a heavy-handed one. Owen himself owns three cars and resides in a semi-rural village. Aware of the compromises inherent in his own choices, he deftly picks apart the conflicting desires that drive sprawl. For example, one of the primary reasons people move out of cities is the desire for more space, but increasingly Americans don’t really use the space they have. Lawns and swimming pools are purely ornamental. Owen cites Richard Louv’s work on childhood in which a fifth grader declares, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” The interiors of suburban shopping malls are designed to mimic the best features of cities: broad areas for walking, densely packed stores, and storefronts pulled right up to the sidewalk.

Sprawl may spring from understandable human impulses, but that doesn’t mean environmentalists have to celebrate it. Owen is savage in his assessment of environmental initiatives that he feels miss the point, such as the LEED system for rating green buildings. The environmental impact of a building, like so many other products of civilization, resides not so much in the building’s design but in its use, an issue that the LEED rating system acknowledges only in passing. By Owen’s estimation, any random New York apartment building is green by virtue of the density that surrounds it. By contrast, no amount of insulation or solar panels can cover the environmental sins of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s eco-headquarters, perched on a lonely peak in Colorado.

Owen’s criticisms are always pointed and often devastating, but not all of them hit their mark. Sometimes his contrarian impulses override his common sense. Congestion pricing is, in fact, good for the environment. So are hybrid and electric cars. At one point, Owen knocks New York’s ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions for focusing overly much on building efficiency: “Mandating large reductions in categories in which New Yorkers already lead the nation is like trying to fight obesity by putting skinny people on diets.”

This would be a cute observation, if not for a few inconvenient facts. For starters, Los Angeles — the supposed capital of sprawl — has a per capita carbon footprint as low or lower than New York’s. It turns out that cars aren’t everything; energy use in buildings matters quite a bit. Further, the people in New York who put together the greenhouse gas reduction plan aren’t as dumb as Owen supposes. They ranked their proposed emissions reduction strategies by both the overall magnitude of the reductions and the per-ton cost of abatement. In plainer English: they identified not only the biggest deposits of fat, but also the places where the fat is easiest to shed.

Happily, these scattered errors (and there are quite a few of them) aren’t enough to undermine the book’s virtues. As for Owen’s second proposition, I remain conflicted. Are environmentalists really as anti-urban as he claims? I reflexively dislike blanket statements about what “environmentalists” believe, but I suspect Owen is more right than wrong. This is the primary reason the book deserves to be widely read. No simple solutions present themselves — land use changes unfold over many decades — but a useful first step is simply getting more people to understand that a denser, more urban society is also a greener one.

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  1. kirk s. nevin - October 28, 2009

    Adam…
    My wife is an English teacher. She hates when people say “uses less resources”… the correct word is fewer. Thanks, Kirk

  2. Adam Stein - October 28, 2009

    I’m begging for trouble here, but “less resources” seems right to me. My understanding is that fewer is for countable nouns (fewer people, fewer avocados) and less is for uncountable nouns (less water, less electricity).
    Resources is an interesting case because it could go either way, but it would have a different meaning depending on the use. The meaning I want is the “less” version, I believe.
    Am I off base?

  3. peggy - October 28, 2009

    My pride as a New Yorker is heightened by your publicizing this.
    I’m also proud of the building where I live for changing building-wide electrical use and raising consciousness about the use of power by residents, e.g. bringing a CFL sales company into the lobby. When I first started working with my Coop Board on this, it felt needed, but sad compared to living in a more conscious state like Vermont. Sad more.
    Now if we can only give up the cars that take us to our (comparatively) inefficient weekend houses! I’m considering it altho in the past, the way I managed to live in NYC was by having regular weekend escapes…

  4. Lisa - October 28, 2009

    Adam – As a former copy editor, I think you are correct. The “less” vs. “fewer” thing crops up a lot (like further and farther, only worse), but there is a nuance in this case that I think you’ve deftly navigated.

  5. Anonymous - October 28, 2009

    I picked up this book in the bookstore and read a chapter or two. He has good points, the main one of which is the pervasive point of view about cars/individual transportation, but I could already tell there were significant factual errors, as you mentioned. Why can’t authors actually bother to research the claims they make? The one that got my goat in particular was his diatribe against (most but not all) HOV lanes on highways. He railed against states like California allowing hybrid vehicles access to these lanes even if they have only 1 occupant. His claim was that “the mileage improvements of hybrids evaporate at highway speeds”, and thus they shouldn’t be given special treatment. Apparently he’s unaware that the most popular midsize hybrids get about 50 mpg on the highway, nearly 50% better than conventional midsizes, who’s highway mpg’s are in the low-mid 30′s? Is a 50% improvement a benefit that has “evaporated”?
    Many public sources, including epa.gov have mileage information. Anyone reading this could look it up in moments, but the author of a book basing his published argument on it couldn’t be bothered? Not impressed.

  6. Kirk - October 28, 2009

    The quote,

  7. Adam Stein - October 28, 2009

    So it is. Owen cites it correctly. The goof is entirely mine. Post updated.

  8. Jose Arrellaga - October 28, 2009

    Does “Rural Living” is this article mean a)having a McMansion in the middle of nowhere or b) living on a farm?
    If a), I agree that “Urban Living” is probably more green than “Rural Living”. If you mean b), tough, I have a hard time believing people on a farm (probaly not driving much ever, growing most of their food, and maybe even being off-grid) have an unsustainable way of life.

  9. landsnark - October 28, 2009

    I think it uses the same number of resources if resources are countable (electricity, petroleum, water), but less of each resource (therefore less resources seems more correct.) “Fewer resources” would imply that there are some categories of resource that are not used. But this is a type of problem I usually skirt by a contruction like “reduction in the use of resources.” I’m a coward that way.

  10. Rob Wilson - October 28, 2009

    Hmmm… that’s a statement that might require some fact checking. I can’t quote statistics, but I think your vision of the modern farm is a bit fanciful. For sure there are a lot of farms out there that a) use enormous amounts of fossil fuels b) don’t grow any of their own food and c) are in no sense “off-grid”. But farming methods in the US are a different subject…

  11. Anonymous - October 31, 2009

    “Farm” probably wasn’t the most accurate term for low impact rural dwellers, but I see the point. I think people can be extremely green in either rural or urban settings, it’s a matter of intent. Hard to measure the difference in impact – an urban setting allows for a much more communal way of using and reusing resources, but on the other hand, if the concentration of people is greater than the city can naturally sustain, the expense and difficulty of importing food and fuel and exporting waste may mitigate what is saved by sharing.

  12. Anonymous - October 31, 2009

    ETA: Ironic, but if people’s mindsets changed a bit, the suburban / small town concentration level might just work best – a small enough population to sustain itself within a relatively small amount of land, a large enough population to get maximal use of resources.

  13. richard schumacher - November 4, 2009

    An utterly fanciful notion in the developed world. Essentially no one there grows all their own food. Farms, whether owned by families or corporations, are machines requiring large amounts of energy and material to operate.
    And what is meant by “naturally sustain”? All human activity requires artificial measures, and by every measure big cities win on resource utilization efficiency. There really is such a thing as economy of scale.
    As for the original subject: it would be useful to re-write Owen’s book to remove the errors. They are distracting and dilute the argument.