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Book Review: Green Metropolis

Adam Rust's picture

Posted August 20, 2009

When I read the first chapter of Green Metropolis, I was worried that my fears about this book might be confirmed. After all, the blurb says that the author is going to reveal how New York City is more sustainable than Snowmass, Colorado or Burlington, Vermont. Hmm, I thought, there's not much to that. People in NYC don't drive cars, they live on top and side-by-side of each other (so they share heating costs), and they have great transit. Why should any readers find it surprising that NYC is so sustainable?

What Would Jane Think?

I remember sitting in a hotel near the campus of Sprint, on about 110th St and Metcalf in Kansas City, Missouri (a national epicenter of sprawl!) and telling my sister (an environmental advocate) that it is not enough to write about how NYC serves as an ideal for sustainability. You can't turn KC into Greenwich Village, right? In other words, I came to Green Metropolis as a skeptic.

I didn't want to hear more about how it worked 100 years ago in NYC.  I wanted to hear how policy could make it work in the future.  I wanted to hear about how we could make Johnson County, Kansas or Fulton County, Georgia more sustainable.

Moreover, I thought, why is David Owen singing the praises of NYC, when he moved from there to rural Northwestern Connecticut? Owen must have known that, because

this book seems to understand that its not enough to laud NYC.

What this book does is go step-by-step through many of planning's existing antidotes to sprawl and reveal their limitations. This is a book about challenging the assumptions that govern current sustainability policy.

The problem, he says, is that New York was built not by policy makers with the right vision, but by lucky timing. It was good timing because most of the city was laid out before the car. What is even more important to realize, he says, is that it was only because of the inability of planners to exert their will upon NYC's urban form that it turned out so well. The best efforts of man didn't foul things up. Although zoning laws and modern planning had begun to take root as early as the 20s, professional planners didn't realize their will on NYC. Too many land decisions were already predetermined before zoning could force segregated land uses. New York succeeded in spite of the best intentions of policy.

Moreover, NYC continues to succeed mostly due to forces that are beyond the decision-making of consumers and policy makers. People choose transit because they don't have a better option. Given the choice, many New Yorkers might drive Smart ForTwo cars if they were available. Sure, there would be more fuel efficient cars on the road - but there would then be fewer walkers, and one more car.

Owens works over so many of the hot ideas in sustainability - from traffic calming, to congestion pricing, to LEED, to HOV lanes, to locavorism, to new urbanism - and shows how each produces unintended impacts that offset much if not all of their value. LEED, for example, is undermined by its focus on becoming green by adding extra features to buildings.  LEED is a dream for a builder, but is it really sustainable to build a 4,000 square foot house even if it has bamboo cabinetry and argon windows? Wouldn't it be more sustainable, he suggests, to just live more simply?

The problem that undermines efforts to make Kansas City sustainable are in many ways the same problems, albeit on a larger scale, that make it hard to build sustainability on the household level. Current policy focuses on making a better "bad:" i.e., low sulfur coal, hybrid cars, bamboo flooring. What would be better would be to shift more to the "goods:" walking, biking, and generally consuming less. Once a suburb has been developed and infrastructure has been invested and built to service that new "place," the die is cast:

  • People can build a solar panel, but they are still going to be driving just as far from work to home.
  • You can have a Prius, but you are still driving it on roads. It's the miles, not the mileage.
  • Its the low-density development that prevents people from walking or biking.
  • You can build HOV lanes to encourage people to car pool.  The unfortunate side effect, though, is to make things more comfortable for the drivers in the other lanes who are still cruising alone in their SUVs.

For individuals, it is much the same: once a bad decision has been made, even trying to improve on a "bad," is limited. Owen does own that house that is 1 mile from the nearest commercial entity. He could move back to NYC, but then someone else would move into his home and consume on the same scale. If anything, he reasons, its better for a work-at-home person to inhabit this space. I think he recognizes the value of using market forces and incentives to change travel plans, but he seems to argue that the labor-saving capacity of oil is rarely equalized by policy. Oil is just too efficient, it seems. You have to deny its use - rationing its use only makes the auto mode more efficient - thereby reducing the chance that congestion will send a strong enough signal to travelers that they should just ride a bike.

I haven't been satisfied with Michael Pollan because he seems to ignore some of the critiques against his ideas. I.E. - if I consume "local", do I have to give up coffee, gasoline, and most anything made with foreign minerals? How about the 2 or 3 billion who will be left to go hungry when we eliminate agriculture at scale? I have appreciated the ability of Bill McKibben to critique the shortsighted nature of our current lifestyle. Then again, I am not sure he has spoken adequately about their solutions.

Upon reading Owen, I am left with a feeling of the nuances and tensions within many of the questions surrounding the sustainability of people and cities. I think this book has a place for the bookshelves of a policy maker or in the syllabi of some college planning courses. Riverhead Press says this is a book about the environment. Really, it is a book about urban planning. The author makes reference to Jane Jacobs, to Christopher Alexander, to Robert Moses, and to many of the nation's great land-use planners.