The Wilson Quarterly

From the moment Henry David Thoreau drove a post into the shores of Walden Pond, the American environmental movement declared its hostility toward ­cities—­those sooted handmaidens of industrial despoliation into which, by 1920, half the American population was smooshed. The argument against urban congestion was moral, aesthetic, and increasingly grounded in science. Yet in spite of the hygienic improvements of ­Progressive-­era municipal reforms, the birth of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the more recent recognition that ­auto-­dependent suburban sprawl poses grave environmental hazards, cities remain the bane of environ­mentalists. Today’s movement to “green” cities with more open parkland, urban agriculture, and ecologically minded building design belongs to a long ­tradition.

Contrary to environmentalism’s ­anti-­urban bias, David Owen argues, New York ­City—­the ur-metropolis ­itself—­is among the greenest human settlements on the planet, measured in terms of its carbon footprint. “The average New Yorker,” he points out, “annually generates 7.1 tons of greenhouse gases, a lower rate than that of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average.” And the beauty of it is that New Yorkers don’t even have to ­try—­or to care. Simply by not driving, and by living on top of one another in small apartments stacked in tall buildings, the denizens of Gotham do more for the environment than the most strenuously eco-friendly composter can ­imagine.

For those unfamiliar with the environmental argument for urban density, Green Metropolis (which developed from a 2004 article Owen wrote for The New Yorker) is a fair place to start. Owen devotes a good part of his book to showing that ­high-­tech green ­fixes—­devel­oping an electric-car industry, constructing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified buildings, and going off the grid with residential solar panels and other ­technologies—­offer false comfort, as long as they perpetuate our dependence on automobile transportation. Such measures do little more than flatter the vanity of architects, engineers, and ­high-­end, conspicuously green consumers, while providing a convenient marketing edge for a host of new products and real estate ventures. Michael Pollan–inspired locavores also come in for a drubbing. In reducing their “food miles,” Owen argues, they ignore agricultural efficiencies of scale while turning over precious urban real estate to plants rather than ­people.

The other prong of Owen’s argument is that, absent politically infeasible federal fuel taxes, only the market will get us to environmental El Dorado. As long as the price of oil remains low, Americans will continue down the ­auto-­dependent highway to Helldorado, where each suburban dwelling consumes far more energy than its vertical-living counterpart: If all eight million New Yorkers were made to live at the sparse density of the classic New England town in which Owen himself resides, “they would require a space equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey.”

Owen is right about the environmental efficacy of higher residential density, yet he’s wrong—deeply ­wrong—­about how better to concentrate population. Let’s begin with his model: Focusing on New York City certainly carries rhetorical force. But, as Owen explains at the outset, the causes of New York’s density levels are historically and geographically unique. Where does that leave the rest of the country? How might his argument apply to a smaller city, such as Akron, Ohio? Or to Detroit, which has lost half its population over the past 50 years, and must repurpose vast areas of vacant land? In these places, urban food production and ecological restoration make a great deal of sense. And if these cities must in-fill their urban cores anyway, to achieve density, why not do it with green ­buildings?

Owen is quick to dismiss “planners,” even though his ideas are indebted to the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements, which he mentions only in passing. ­Long-­term design, the development of ­land-­use policy, and transportation planning are precisely what ­far-­flung cities in the hinterland need in order to prepare for a ­low-­carbon future. New York may be contributing more than its fair share to reducing carbon emissions, and Owen is right to question the wisdom of “greening” such places. But clearly he has never been to ­Cleveland.

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Catherine Tumber is a research affiliate with the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning's Community Innovators Lab. She is writing a book about the promise of small-to-midsize older industrial American cities in a low-carbon future. 

Reviewed: "Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability" by David Own, Riverhead, 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Christopher Porter

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