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Green Metropolis Takes Aim at Environmentalists’ Conventional Wisdom

Author David Owen thinks that New York is the nation’s greenest city.  David Owen, a staff writer with The New Yorker, has expanded on his 2004 article entitled “Green Manhattan” that roughs up some of the environmental movement’s most closely held beliefs in a new book entitled Green MetropolisA review by Catherine Tumber, originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, notes that “Eco-friendly suburbanites and small-town residents are only kidding themselves as long as they live in sparsely settled, spaciously appointed, auto-dependent communities.  If they really want to reduce their carbon footprint in any significant way, they should live in densely settled, pedestrian-friendly, public-transit-oriented cities like New York.”

Owen suggests that cities like New York build on their biggest low-carbon asset – their large population densities – and place less emphasis on green buildings, urban agriculture and increasing the size of the city’s parks.  He even believes that Central Park is too big and wasted space that could be used to support even more housing.  Additionally, Owen takes aim at “the spectrum of green-tech fixes under development, from residential solar panels and LEED-certified buildings to ‘net-metering,’ de-concentrated ‘distributed’ electricity generation, ethanol production and electric cars.  ‘Nature-conservancy brain’ and ‘LEED brain,’ as he calls these environmentalist fixations, are too often driven by PR and do little more than distract from the more difficult task at hand:  how to get Americans to kick the car habit and live together more closely, in smaller spaces,” Tumber writes.

According to Owen, New Yorkers are environmentalists because they live in a city where a car is a luxury and residents tend to walk, take the bus or the subway.  “In urban planning in particular,” he said, “the best, most enduringly fruitful concepts have usually arisen accidentally, and have endured not because anyone was wise enough to identify and preserve them but because they serendipitously developed what was, in effect, a life of their own.  Owen argues that New York should be viewed as a model for other cities that want to reduce their carbon footprint.

Tumber notes that “Owen makes a point, almost in passing, that also deserves further conversation:  rather than reducing the carbon footprints of apartment buildings or growing food on precious urban real estate, cities should be focusing on ‘old-fashioned quality-of-life-concerns’ such as education, crime, noise and recreational amenities – the very troubles that drove people into suburbia in the first place.”

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