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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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