Green Metropolis: A Q&A with David Owen

“The bulk of the world’s energy consumption is within cities,” British environmentalist Herbert Girardet once wrote. Cities cover 3-4 percent of the earth, he said, but consume 80 percent of the world’s natural resources—which to this way of thinking makes cities ecological disaster areas, parasites drawing sustenance from the countryside.

In his new book Green Metropolis, New Yorker writer David Owen says that Girardet’s view gets it wrong—totally, completely wrong. 

“To borrow a term from the jargon of computer systems, dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs and isolated straw-bale eco-redoubts are not,” he writes. Urbanites drive less, own fewer cars, produce less garbage, and consume less energy than their counterparts in the country. As Owen convincingly argues in Green Metropolis, the best thing any of us can do for the environment is to encourage the growth of livable, shareable cities, the ultimate in human habitats.

For many environmentalists, this is a challenging, counterintuitive notion—and in the Q&A that follows, Owen explains why cities are naturally green. 

Q: In Green Metropolis, you call New York City a “utopian environmentalist community.” Why?

Manhattan’s density is approximately 67,000 people per square mile, or more than 800 times that of the nation as a whole and roughly 30 times that of Los Angeles. Placing 1.5 million people on a 23-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, enables most of them to get by without owning cars, encourages them to keep their families small, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. New Yorkers are the lowest per-capita energy users in the country, and they have the smallest carbon footprint—about the same as the average citizen of Sweden.

Q: Why is it important to understand that living in New York is more environmentally sound than residing in rural areas?

In the next thirty years, the human population of the earth will increase by 7 times the current population of the United States, or by the current combined population of India and China. Meanwhile, we are rapidly depleting the natural resources on which we all depend. Population density is one of the few truly powerful environmental tools available to us, and we already understand how it works. Priuses and community gardens make Americans feel green, but they aren’t going to get the job done.

Q: What is it about dense cities like NYC that makes its residents consume less gas, water, and electricity? Are its residents simply more virtuous?

New York’s performance is not the result of a massive, expensive environmental campaign; it’s the result of New Yorkers living the way New Yorkers have always lived. The city’s efficiencies, like the efficiencies of all dense urban cores, are built into the fabric of the place, and they don’t depend on an unprecedented commitment to sacrifice and compliance by environmentally concerned citizens. In fact, New Yorkers themselves, when informed that their per-capita energy consumption is the lowest in the United States, usually express surprise. They don’t generate less carbon because they go around snapping off lights.

This is a good thing. Unconscious efficiencies are the most desirable ones because they require neither enforcement nor a personal commitment to cutting back. I spoke with one energy expert, who, when asked to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the United States said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.”

Q: Aside from New York, what other cities can be looked to as environmental role models?

The best models are dense central cities with low dependence on automobiles: San Francisco, Boston, old European cities, Hong Kong, Singapore. The worst are sprawling, car-dependent cities like Atlanta, Kansas City, Dubai, and, of course, Los Angeles. But even Los Angeles is denser and therefore more efficient than almost any American suburb. Angelenos have a much smaller carbon footprint than residents of truly non-dense places, such as Wyoming.

Q: The focus of the American environmental movement has been about preserving our remaining wilderness. Do you agree with this approach?

Environmentalists tend to focus on defending the places where people aren’t as opposed to intelligently organizing the places where people are, which is a mistake. Preservation of wilderness is important, but the best way to achieve it is through thoughtful urbanization—by moving people closer together and getting them to share what they have.

Q: You don’t live in New York. Instead, you still live in a small town in Connecticut, in exactly the kind of exurban area that you deem as unsustainable. Why do you stay there?

There’s a difference between changing one’s own circumstances and changing the circumstances of the world. If my wife and I moved back to Manhattan tomorrow, our personal carbon footprint would shrink, but the carbon footprint of the human race would be unchanged, because in order for us to move we’d have to sell our house and cars and everything else to other people, and life would go on as before. “Move everyone to New York” is not an environmental strategy. Nor is tearing down our country and starting again. What we must do is find ways to apply New York’s powerful environmental example to other kinds of communities—to make everyplace more like Manhattan. Wilderness-loving environmentalists who dismiss urban dwellers as parasites aren’t helping. The best thing we can do is to reduce the many built-in incentives that tend to aggravate our growing environmental difficulties, and to increase the incentives that tend to alleviate them. Environmental solutions that depend solely on will power are doomed to fail. Plans that are designed, instead, to harness and direct human nature—such as the instinctive human aversion to going broke—are far more likely to succeed, as long as the incentives remain in place.

David Owen’s Rules for Urban Environmentalism

1. Live smaller: The average American single-family house doubled in size in the second half of the twentieth century. Oversized dwellings permanently raise the world’s demand for energy, and they encourage careless consumption of all kinds. In the long run, supersized houses are no more sustainable than S.U.V.’s or private jets, no matter how many photovoltaic panels they have on their roofs.

2. Live closer: The main key to lowering energy consumption and shrinking the carbon footprint of modern civilization is to decrease the distances between the places where people live, work, shop, and play. The steady enlargement of the American house was accompanied by the explosive growth of low-density subdivisions and satellite communities linked by networks of new highways and inhabited by long-distance commuters. Living closer to one’s daily destinations, Manhattan-style, reduces vehicle miles traveled, makes transit and walking feasible as forms of transportation, increases the efficiency of energy production and consumption, limits the need to build superfluous infrastructure, and cuts the demand for such environmentally doomed extravagances as riding lawnmowers and household irrigation systems.

3. Drive less: Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging. Most so-called environmental initiatives concerning automobiles are actually counterproductive, because their effect is to make driving less expensive (by reducing the need for fuel) and to make car travel more agreeable (by eliminating congestion). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.

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