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

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Posted 2010-06-02

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Green Metropolis surveys contemporary urban life and shows how the advice of its subtitle--live in small-scale housing (including small apartments in high-rise buildings), live close to your regular destinations, and drive sparingly--forms a solid basis for good environmentalism. In showing this, Owen turns many assumptions about urban form and environmentalism on their head. As such, this book may disturb some readers. If you are see yourself as a stalwart environmentalist--you live in a green area with plenty of open space, drive a hybrid car, sport an aluminum water bottle, and even have reusable hemp grocery sacks--you may turn your nose up at those wastrels in the big apartment and office towers downtown--they live in a concrete jungle! Except such a viewpoint, as Owen shows, misses the whole point about environmentalism and cities.

David Owen carefully overturns assumptions and makes his case for green urbanism by showing how these ideas interact:

"In terms of sustainability, dense cities have far more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns" (p. 13).
In chapter 1, "More Like Manhattan," Owen shows how Manhattan--not little cabins in the woods--is the true model for environmental efficiency. Manhattanites demonstrate this every day in their low per-capita consumption of energy. By living in smaller spaces closer to regular destinations--everything from work, fun, dental care, and food shopping--people have choices for walking, bicycling, or taking mass transit (pp. 46-48).

In chapter 2, "Liquid Civilization," Owen provides a detailed (and somewhat repetitive) breakdown of oil dependency and the lack of alternatives (see also Kunstler 2005). Owen emphasizes this dependence for a reason he reveals early and illustrates well: "The cost of fossil fuels is an important part of the cost of everything we buy and everything we do." (p. 50). The inescapable physics of energy sources is EROEI, energy return on energy invested (p.77). In brief, EROEI works this way: you can't get something for nothing. To get oil (or any other energy source), you need to expend energy on exploration, drilling, manufacture of equipment, transport, etc. They key is that you want to get more useful energy from the substance that you obtain than you put in to getting it. In the early days of oil exploration, EROEI could be 100:1. But records show that this ratio has fallen to around 10:1 today for Middle Eastern oil (p. 77). And this isn't even considering the cost of military activity needed to access and protect this oil or the environmental costs of spills and drilling accidents. Owen points out that NYC shows how to be less dependent on cars no matter what the price of oil, and employs well-understood, competent-edge technology with a long, documented history in operation (p. 100). He points out that ethanol (p. 55) is not a viable alternative.

In the third chapter, "There and Back," Owen points out that oil supporting car dependency is particularly troubling because it sets up enabling patterns of settlement and ways of living that are inherently inefficient and demand a high degree of oil consumption (p. 102). In particular, this leads to a circular horror: "automobiles have enabled us to create a way of life that cannot be sustained without automobiles" (p. 104). Owen points out:

"The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway; it's everything the Hummer makes possible--the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes." (p. 104)
"A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxin-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can't easily be abandoned for something smaller and less destructive." (p. 105).

In "The Great Outdoors," Owen explores the feel and psychology of cities. There is a psychology to walking, in which inviting environments encourage walking (See also Hiss 1990). There are even areas where public transit becomes inefficient because of the dense set of activity areas that pedestrians might want to reach on foot--simply put, it becomes more efficient and enjoyable to walk with good city design (pp. 168--183). To build cities with this attractive aspect is not straightforward. Misguided attempts such as temporary street blockages for bicycle or pedestrian travel fall flat when placed on streets that are just a "pedestrian wasteland" (lacking interesting, dense, attractions). Owen thus ties the need for a high quality urban experience as a key to good environmentalism, so much so that he is puzzled why environmental organizations don't form a Civilian City Corps:

" might be more useful to turn the problem inside out, by putting the same people to work improving the quality of human life in dense urban centers--A civilian city Corps--with a view to making compact urban living more attractive and appealing to a larger proportion of the population, thereby creating an environmentally beneficial counterforce to opposition to sprawl." (p. 201).

In "Embodied Efficiency," Owen shows the basic analysis demonstrating the green nature of city life. A city hotel in Times Square can have twice as many rooms as a sprawling Arizona resort hotel, on a footprint of only about 1% of the sprawling hotel complex. This embodied efficiency is frequently ignored by the environmentalists who show an enthusiasm for LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or the Rocky Mountain Institute, both of which Owen criticizes for their actions.

In the final chapter, "The Shape of Things to Come," Owen admits that it is problematic if the tremendous appeal of cheap energy and the lifestyle it enables can be revealed for what it is. Owen tells the story about an enthusiastic reader of The New Yorker article upon which this book was based. She asked what suburb could she move to (p. 324).

I think Owen's book is one of the most important written in this field recently. I am heartened that this book brings together and synthesizes much of the recent observations and examples teach us about oil dependence and automobile dependence. On reading this book, I realize that unless there is some need to use oil as an aim in itself, it seems foolish to keep quashing efforts to use less of it.

I admire this book because Owen boldly calls out NYC as an exemplar environmental model without apology. I think when people see beneficial results and change on their own--as NYC citizens have done--a more powerful force is unleashed than any damning of suburban values. The advice given in the book's subtitle is worth the cost of the book alone. If only people would consider this advice, environmentalists would drop their anti-urban bias, and policy makers drop their automobile objective, green urbanism could shine and increase.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©