Featured: GREEN METROPOLIS by David Owen [Vol. 2, #47]

December 4, 2009

 

“Examining Sustainability
on New Terms”

A Review of
Green Metropolis:
Why Living Smaller, Living Closer,
and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability
.
By David Owen.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

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

Hardback: Riverhead, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

GREEN METROPOLIS - David OwenDavid Owen’s new book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability begins a little differently than those of us who read books with titles like this might expect. Up front, Owen posits that “by the most significant measures, New York [City] is the greenest community in the Unites States” (2). Clearly, this book intends to examine sustainability on new terms, the most significant are listed simply in the subtitle, living smaller and closer, and driving less. The heart of New York City’s ‘greenness,’ in fact, is proximity, population density, and mixed-use or diversified neighborhoods, all of which have echoes of Jane Jacobs’s work throughout.

To begin to make the paradigm-shift of viewing cities’ density as the strongest mark of sustainability, some numbers and statistics are enlightening. For instance, much has been made of a number like the “1 percent of all greenhouse gasses produced by the United States” are generated in New York City. This may seem like an astounding number, but a large part of Owen’s work is to put statistics like this in context of the 2.7 percent of the country’s population that lives in NYC, “meaning that its carbon footprint is already remarkably low in comparison with that of other American communities” (17).

Population density lends itself to economies of scale, public transport, and mixed-use development. Additionally, and importantly:

the crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a ‘sustainable’ house, office building, or household appliance…Every house, office building, or and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it’s the network, not the individual constituents, on which our future depends. This is the reason that dense cities set such a critical example: they prove that it’s possible to arrange human populations in ways that are inherently less wasteful and destructive (40).

To emphasize the interconnectedness of all things seems helpful on two fronts: first by affirming the agency of communities above that of individuals, and secondly it suggests Wendell Berry’s marks of the Great Economy, foremost that “it includes everything.”

In the following chapters, Owen spends a lot of time describing automobiles, suburban sprawl, and oil dependency as the most unsustainable and environmentally damaging realities to consider at present. The flight away from the city out into ‘nature’ is facilitated and perpetuated by the automobile, from Henry Ford’s ‘anti-urbanism’ to Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Automobile Objective’ to the Sierra Club and other environmentalists who push further out to the frontier, continuing a manifest destiny mentality, and all the while extending the reach of sprawl.

An excellent chapter “Embodied Efficiency” proposes significant changes in the way green building and infrastructure are evaluated and practiced, again considering the interdependence of any one structure to a much broader context. So, for example, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and environmental firm based in Colorado built its new headquarters in the mountains fifteen miles northwest of Aspen, with krypton-filled windows, greenhouse heating and woodstoves, and solar panel electricity. Despite the green technologies, Owen argues that this is an example of “embodied inefficiency”: “it was built in a fragile location, on virgin land 7,000 feet above sea level, and it can hold only a handful of RMI’s full-time Snowmass employees, the rest of whom work in a converted (and not particularly energy-efficient) ranch house a half-mile away. Because the two buildings are in a thinly populated area, they force most employees to drive many miles – including trips between the two buildings” (219). Measured in embodied efficiency or inefficiency, the RMI headquarters is as inefficient as the green-designed Sprint Nexel Corporation’s headquarters in a Kansas City suburb (“one square foot of parking for every one square foot of office space” (214-5)), or LEED platinum-certified Philip Merrill Environmental Center of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in suburban Annapolis. The photovoltaic panels, geothermal wells, cork flooring, and bamboo stairs adorn a building situated on a thirty-two acres, earning LEED points for “maximizing open space, or what Owen calls “LEED’s sprawl reward, since it gives developers an incentive to …create low-density projects on open land far from urban cores” (228), moving out of the former downtown Annapolis location.

Green Metropolis is a significant and important book for shifting the dialogue around conventional conversations about urban sustainability. That said, a number of questions have arisen that I think might generate further conversation with this book, particularly reading it alongside Restorative Commons, an excellent publication from the U.S. Forest Service, which considers green spaces in NYC:

1. How can local economies be created, particularly starting with production? What businesses are working as parts of these dense neighborhoods, and how are their practices operating in the rest of the world? How can local production be emphasized over and against the rapacious global economy?

2. How can an economy based on ‘unlimited economic growth’ be sustainable in any way? Living smaller, closer, and driving less are a start, but to what end? I would hope for nothing short of a radical transformation of this destructive economics, which would quell environmental calamities in its own way.

3. What are ‘sustainable’ ways of engaging with the land? If most of us move to dense cities, what use is the use or value to the newly-open space? To some degree, there seems to be the nature/culture duality at work here, rather simplistically refusing to see nurturing or care as a model, rather it becomes an all or nothing interaction – abuse it or isolate it –  with the created order. Neither, of course, is correct.