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Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living…

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are… (edition 2009)

by David Owen

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Title:Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability
Authors:David Owen
Info:Riverhead Hardcover (2009), Hardcover, 368 pages
Collections:Your library

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

  1. 00
    Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser (Othemts)
  2. 00
    Cities for People by Jan Gehl (rakerman)
    rakerman: Jan Gehl's Cities for People is a synthesis of his years of experience as an urban designer, with lots of info about the psychology of people moving in built space. It makes a good companion for David Owen's Green Metropolis, which is ostensibly about Manhattan as the greenest American city, but really more about why we need to live in dense urban environments and disinvite cars from the places we build, in order to live sustainably. One major difference is that Gehl for various reasons supported by human psychology prefers buildings of at most six storeys, whereas Owen advocates for the much taller towers typical of midtown and downtown Manhattan.… (more)

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Owen makes a very compelling case for cities as the most environmentally friendly places to live and work due to the efficiencies of living closer, sharing resources, and reducing travel with New York City as the key example. I'm already sold on the idea but he piles on the evidence for his theory in a way that I hope convinces other people who have the ingrained idea of cities as dirty places. He also takes on the pastoral vision of many environmental movements and "LEED brain" where new construction is rewarded for fancy add-ons that are not good for the environment especially when compared to simple renovations of existing buildings. I'm less sold on his opposition to things like the locavore movement which is as much built on nutrition and local sustainability as environmentalism. He's also opposed to vertical agriculture because he thinks it would interfere with the connectivity of cities, but I think they'd fit in perfectly replacing underused light industrial and warehouse districts that already exist in cities like New York. I'm also not sold on his cop-out argument for continuing to live in a drafty farmhouse in suburban Connecticut where he believes if he moved to New York someone less environmentally aware would occupy his current house. Nits picked, I still think this book is a great argument for an idea whose time has come.
Favorite Passages:

"Jefferson…embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational self-improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello" (p. 25)

Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging. Most so-called environmental initiatives concerning automobiles are actually counterproductive, because their effect is to make driving less expensive (by reducing the need for fuel) and to make car travel more agreeable (by eliminating congestion). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.

The near certainty is that, for many years to come, what the market will replace oil with is not something better (such as nuclear fusion, which, at the very least, is decades or generations away) but something considerably worse (such as low-grade coal, China’s main fuel, which makes oil’s carbon footprint and pollution profile look demure), and that ordinary market forces, rather than leading us inexorably toward a golden future, will most likely entice us to compound our growing troubles by prompting us to invest heavily in the energy equivalents of patent medicines (such as shale oil and ethanol). Sometimes, the invisible hand goes for the throat. ( )
1 vote Othemts | Aug 3, 2012 |
One of the big insights that I got from this book is that most North American "environmentalism" is really a kind of pastoral fantasy, an obsession with nature somehow pure and untouched, man living in the woods in splendid isolation. This leads to absurd contradictions like supposed "environmentalists" who are opposed to wind generators because they spoil the view, or who live in large, energy-intensive, long-car-commute houses in the middle of nowhere.

The author's screed against some of the absurd aspects of LEED is also excellent.

Overall his argument is that the most energy-efficient approach is to build aspects of energy saving into people's lives, through tower buildings that expose little surface area, and dense neighbourhoods that support walking, cycling and transit.

There is a bit of a contradiction as the author writes in praise of this lifestyle while living in a big house far from a city, and his justification that "if I didn't live here, someone else would" is rather weak and self-serving.

Overall I liked the book because of its insight about how much North American "environmentalism" is about escaping to the wilderness and using fancy technology, rather than building energy savings into our lives.

Interesting that three authors - Kunstler, Gehl, and Owen - all take on the problems of car-centric design and the resulting suburbs, but come to different conclusion on the ideal built form. Kunstler celebrates the New England small town as the ideal form, Gehl the European city centre with its six-storey buildings, and Owen Manhattan's towers. I find Gehl's and Owen's conclusions much more compelling. In fairness, Kunstler is making an argument not just about urban planning but about a post-oil civilization. I still think cities will survive better than small towns.
  rakerman | Feb 25, 2011 |
This is well researched and written and focused on key issues central to building a sustainable culture. The neglected issue of population density is most prominent, but the author also covers many other related issues and debunks many widely held myths about sustainability, such as the high relative priority we currently give to recycling, mass transit and various high-tech schemes for salvation. Owen maintains that Manhattan's population density is in part an accident due to a favorable geography. Some more discussion of how to retrofit existing urban centers to emulate Manhattan, by design, would have also been useful. ( )
  bkinetic | Oct 14, 2010 |
Found this to be a quick and not particularly enlightening read. Owen's thesis, essentially, is the obvious: living in a smaller space, close to amenities and your workplace, reduces your carbon footprint. My greatest quibble with this book is that it is very, very American. There are no specific international examples used, aside from vague mentions of Europe’s superiority. Using one example, in this case NYC, to illustrate your argument is never terribly effective and I would have respected Owen much more if he had drawn on further examples. I was also disappointed by the lack of productive suggestions expressed in the conclusion. ( )
1 vote thecaptivereader | May 5, 2010 |
There was enough of interest in this book to keep me reading all the way to the end, but there were a lot of annoyances along the way. The book was also poorly organized. It appears to be little more than an anthology of Owen's articles from The New Yorker. But rather than actually publishing it as an anthology, Owen tried to patch them together into one cohesive book. The result is a patchwork full of interesting digressions that are poorly melded with the central argument of the book.

The argument of the book is interesting and straight-forward. Dense urban areas are more energy efficient than the typical suburban lifestyle. City dwellings are smaller (and thus need less heating, cooling, and lighting). City residents drive less, since urban density makes mass transit and walking/biking more practical. And large urban buildings are more efficient to heat and cool (per resident) than the smaller building of suburbia. Thus, Owen argues, if you care about climate change or other political and environmental costs of our fossil-fuel-dependent life style, big cities are a good thing, and we should do things to encourage more people to live in cities (or, conversely, to make suburban living less enticing).

From this basic point, Owen makes some interesting inferences. If a city dweller has 25% of the carbon footprint of a car-dependent suburban resident, then anything that makes cities more enticing is good for the environment. So investing in city schools is good for the environment, since one of the reasons young families leave the city is often concern about the quality of public education.

Owen spends a lot of the book critiquing things---from trendy environmental movements, such as locavorism and sustainability, to the goals of city and town planners and traffic engineers. Maybe it's good to eat locally grown produce, but if everybody in a major city tried to live that way, they would all starve---there wouldn't be enough locally grown food to feed that many people. Similarly, a family that spent millions of dollars building an 8,000 square foot house to be as eco-friendly as possible are derided for not realizing that it would have been much more eco-friendly to simply build a smaller house, or to move to an apartment in the city.

My frustrations with the book come from many of these critiques (as well as the author's own suggestions). Often he is clever and points out things that make you say, "Gosh, I never thought of it that way." But at the same time, he often makes sloppy arguments and never seems to apply the same skepticism to his own viewpoints that he applies to everyone else's. For example, Owen states that zoning is bad, because zoning laws often enforce rules that make it harder to achieve the population densities you see in urban cores. But he never explains why zoning per se is bad, rather than specific types of zoning ordinances. This is probably because Owen does not actually mean that the mere existence of any sort of zoning law is necessarily a bad thing.

All in all, I would have found this book better if the author were as honest and forthright about the shortcomings of his lifestyle and ideas as he is about everyone else's. Owen admits that he does not follow the lifestyle he advocates, living instead in suburban Connecticut. He tries to argue that he is not being hypocritical by observing that if he didn't live in his Connecticut home, somebody else would; so there would be the same environmental impact either way. I found this a completely unsatisfying rationalization. If more people, like himself, wanted to live in cities, and did so, there would be more aggregate demand for urban dwellings, and, over time, cities would grow. If Owen had admitted that he is an example of the challenge we face---that most people prefer the luxuries, flexibility, and prestige of our sub-urban lifestyle and aren't willing to give up these comforts for intangible environmental benefits---he would have been more honest, and he would have gotten at some of the real underlying challenge of trying to reign in the waste and inefficiency of a "more-is-better" culture.

In the end, Owen does admit that the problem of how to truly live in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way without giving up the comforts of modern society is quite difficult and that he doesn't know what the solutions are. But at that point it is too little, too late. I had already spent most of the book saying, "It's easy to criticize, Mr. Owen, but I don't see you coming up with any practical suggestions either." I would have been less annoyed, if Owen had made this admission earlier, and been a little more humble in his critiques of everything anyone else has suggested or tried.

I listened to this book on CD, read by Patrick Lawlor. Part of my general annoyance with the book was the slightly sneering and superior tone Lawlor brought to the book. Maybe that was Lawlor's take on the book, but it also may have simply been the way Owen's words came across when read out loud.
1 vote Wombat | Apr 25, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
“Green Metropolis” challenges many cherished assumptions about easy-on-the-earth country living, though many of its revelations may not be revelatory to hardcore carbon counters, or to anyone who read Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article from which this book sprouted.
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Upending the environmentalist viewpoint that urban areas are "anti-green," New Yorker staff writer David Owen argues that sustainability is achieved in areas like New York City, while open space, backyard compost heaps, locavorism and high-tech gadgetry like solar panels and triple-paned windows are formulas for wasteful sprawl and green-washed consumerism.… (more)

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