David Owen - Green Metropolis[Welcome David Owen, and Host Catherine Tumber – bev]

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability

With Green Metropolis, New Yorker staff writer David Owen roughs up the American environmental movement’s most sacred cows (including the grass-fed ones). The book expands on a 2004 article Owen wrote for the New Yorker, called “Green Manhattan,” and in the longer work New York City remains his frame of reference.

Eco-friendly suburbanites and small-town residents are only kidding themselves, he argues, 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.

Likewise, Owen urges cities (including New York) to build on their biggest low-carbon asset—their high population density—and stop placing so much store in green buildings, urban agriculture, and the expansion of city parkland. He even looks askance at New York’s Central Park for taking up too much space that could be given over to intensive urban dwelling. In the process, he skewers the environmental movement’s longstanding hostility to cities and love affair with “nature,” dating back to Thoreau, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and the ’70s back-to-the-land movement.

And in what are, perhaps, the most painstakingly researched sections of the book, he casts a cool appraising eye across the spectrum of green-tech fixes under development, from residential solar panels and LEED-certified buildings to “net-metering,” deconcentrated “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.

Owen reminds us that New Yorkers are environmentalists without even having to think about it, because they already live this way. “In urban planning in particular,” he says, “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 and were therefore able to withstand the best intentions of potential destroyers, including urban planners themselves.” (p. 315)   All the best planning in the world, he argues, will not achieve what only rising fuel costs can bring about, since the other incentive to concentrate population and refine public transit—a federal gas tax—is politically infeasible.

Arguing that Gotham should be a model for other cities concerned about reducing their carbon footprints, certainly packs rhetorical heat. But I wonder how helpful it is for cities with entirely different economic histories and land-use legacies, not to mention cities of much smaller scale (think Peoria: population 110,000), or even shrinking cities that have lost as much as half their populations (such as Detroit or Youngstown or Buffalo).

In some of these places, returning parts of the city to “nature” makes a certain amount of sense. So does planning for future density, which many of these places currently lack. Indeed, over the past decade, planning and design organizations, from Smart Growth America and the Congress for the New Urbanism to the American Institute of Architects, have grown increasingly alive to their environmental responsibilities, rendering the environmental movement itself more complex and city-focused than Owen makes it out to be. I hope we can talk about some of these issues in our salon today.

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.

Traditional environmentalists tend to give short shrift to these issues, he says, because they don’t “feel green.” Yet they applaud suburbanites who strenuously compost, weatherize, and install solar panels on their roofs, which barely makes a dent in addressing our collective dependency on fossil fuel. Owen’s book draws our attention to this hypocrisy—in which he himself participates, as he notes bravely and ruefully—and should inspire a good deal of soul searching. We can only hope that it also will contribute to real policy change.

Catherine Tumber

Catherine Tumber

Catherine Tumber is writing a book for the MIT Press on the promise of America's small-to-midsize older industrial cities in a low-carbon future, which expands on an essay she wrote for the Boston Review titled, "Small Green, and Good." She is currently a research affiliate with the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning's Community Innovators Lab. Catherine is the author of American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002) and co-editor with Walter Earl Fluker of A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religion and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998). She has a doctorate in U.S. history from the University of Rochester, and has worked as an editor for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Review. Her essays and reviews have appeared in both publications as well as in Book Forum, the Washington Post, In These Times, and Commonweal, among others. Her review of Green Metropolis will appear in the next issue of the Wilson Quarterly.