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Sep 2009
The Green Metropolis
David Owen’s Manifesto of Urbanism

When the modern environmental movement was rejuvenated about 40 years ago, the predominant vision of environmental purity was the wilderness, perhaps alongside the working rural landscape. In those days we in the movement, like much of America, tended to vilify cities and romanticize the countryside. It even seemed a strange step for an environmental group when the NRDC, the group I’ve served for nearly three decades, founded our urban program in the mid-1980’s. For an individual environmentalist, the ideal was to live in a rural area, as close to nature and the “real” environment as possible. What we didn't realize then, but do now (a lot of us, anyway), is that automobile-dependent sprawl with solar panels, chickens and compost is still, well, automobile-dependent sprawl. And that compact, walkable cities, suburbs, and towns are not the environmental problem but the environmental solution.

David Owen, author of the new book The Green Metropolis, understands this. This is why Owen’s 2004 article, “Green Manhattan,” published in the New Yorker, was such a breath of fresh air for those of us working on urban issues and sustainable alternatives to suburban sprawl. In “Green Manhattan,” Owen made the point that when we measure environmental impacts, whether emissions, waste, or land consumption, on a per capita basis, dense cities are, in fact, the greenest places and, in the US, Manhattan is the greenest of them all. In his article, Owen clearly articulated what some of our new work at the NRDC was all about: reducing our per capita environmental footprint by finding more efficient ways to grow.

But Owen was also right in that article to assert, as he does again in his new book, that a lot of environmentalists and a lot of the public still do not understand this sort of environmental calculation. When “Green Manhattan” was published, I sent a copy to all of my organization’s trustees, and, to my dismay, within an hour of my message, one of my colleagues had fired off a rebuttal. My colleague, who was invested in addressing problems of urban waste and pollution in New York, was not entirely wrong in fearing that Owen – and, by extension, I – were undermining his work by suggesting that Manhattan was environmentally OK the way it was. But he was wrong in failing to acknowledge that, in many ways, Manhattan was and remains a very good environmental model, with its highly efficient use of land and walkable neighborhoods. And that, if we could bring the per capita environmental footprint of America closer to that of Manhattan, we would be achieving a great green success.

The problem is especially critical because much of the built environment we are going to have in the United States over the next 50 years has not yet been built. With current trends, by 2030 we will have (despite the current recession) an additional 70 million new Americans, 40 million new jobs, 50 million new and replacement homes, and an astounding 78 billion square feet of new and replacement nonresidential space. How this unprecedented growth is managed and organized within our cities and across our landscape is enormously important to our environmental, social, and economic welfare.

It is abundantly clear that we cannot simply do things the way we did in the last half of the 20th century, when developed land grew twice as much as population and when rates of driving per person grew around four times as much as population, in no small part because we have been spreading things out so much, with most places well beyond the reach of walking and in ways that preclude efficient public transit routes. Here is a telling statistic: in 1973, 60 percent of kids walked to school; now only 13 percent do.

Green Metropolis, which expands on the themes Owen introduced in “Green Manhattan,” could not be timelier. The book is subtitled “What the city can teach the country about true sustainability,” and there is indeed a critical story to be told on the subject. Increasingly, planners and policy wonks get it, but the public, who elect our decision-makers and testify at development hearings, do not, and we need someone like Owen to help spread the word, in non-wonky English.

To a great extent, Owen accomplishes this. Especially in his well-researched opening chapter, Owen shows how environmentally efficient a large city like New York really is, and how failing to seize upon this fundamental truth can lead us in wrong directions. He is absolutely right, for example, in pointing out that the biggest environmental challenge facing a place like New York is not, as many believe, how to reduce carbon emissions from lighting, heating and cooling buildings, a category in which New Yorkers already lead the nation on a per capita basis (like “putting skinny people on diets,” Owen writes). It is, instead, how to address perceptions of inferior public school quality and a lack of public safety, which diminish the city’s ability to attract and retain residents to its efficient lifestyle.

That Owen is so right in his basic point, which is so important, is why it is so maddening to come across the book’s fallacies, which undermine his credibility. For example, he repeatedly contrasts New York with Washington DC, to show the benefits of a dense, walkable city compared to one that he regards as spread-out and pedestrian-unfriendly. As a longtime resident of Washington, I am quite used to patronizing New Yorkers, but when Owen refers to DC, actually a rather densely populated and highly walkable city, I can’t help but wonder if he has ever seen Connecticut Avenue, Penn Quarter, Dupont Circle or, indeed, any part of the city outside the monumental core depicted on his childhood postcards. Christopher Leinberger, an urbanist at the Brookings Institution who has undertaken an in-depth study of walkability in the nation’s cities, ranks Washington at the top on a per capita basis, because of precisely the kinds of urban features – mixed uses, an interesting pedestrian streetscape, building density, manageable block sizes, connectivity – that Owen celebrates in his book. (Two web-based sources, Walk Score and Planetizen, also rank DC in the top 10, though below New York.) If the rest of America’s cities and suburbs had the pleasant, walkable density of Washington, instead of the true sprawl of Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Omaha, or New York’s own suburbs, we would live in a far greener country.

In addition, Owen takes an extended swipe at LEED, the nationally recognized green building certification program, for honoring building technology while largely ignoring the considerable environmental problems caused by even the “greenest” of buildings when they are located in automobile-dependent, sprawling locations. That has historically been true, and Owen is absolutely right to point it out, but he appears naïve in failing also to acknowledge that, partly in response to that deficiency, a partnership of organizations comprising the US Green Building Council, NRDC, and the Congress for the New Urbanism has now developed LEED for Neighborhood Development (full disclosure: yours truly is a co-founder), which gives full recognition to locational characteristics in its rating system.

But, for me, the book’s biggest flaw – the thing that most undermines Owen’s credibility – is that he does not practice what he preaches. He says he lives not in New York, which he celebrates so enthusiastically and where not long ago he did reside, but in a quasi-rural suburb in Connecticut, on a large lot, in a lifestyle that of necessity contains all the inefficiencies that he criticizes. But Owen doesn’t really say much about this, and that the book fails to explain why he eschews the lifestyle he extols is a major weakness. There is an important story there, one that suggests either he does not fully believe what he wrote or that he believes it but also believes that other things are more important. Assuming it is the latter, the book would be strengthened by more candor that would admit to the shortcomings of his beloved Manhattan and point to things about the urban lifestyle that, if we are to succeed as a country in becoming more environmentally benign, we must address.

F. Kaid Benfield is an environmental attorney and director of the Smart Growth Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC.

Author Being Reviewed: 
David Owen