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

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Read David Owen's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A challenging, controversial, and highly readable look at our lives, our world, and our future.

In this remarkable challenge to conventional thinking about the environment, David Owen argues that the greenest community in the United States is not Portland, Oregon, or Snowmass, Colorado, but New York, New York.

Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares, as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan— the most densely populated place in North America —rank first in public-transit use and last in percapita greenhouse-gas production, and they consume gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. They are also among the only people in the United States for whom walking is still an important means of daily transportation.

These achievements are not accidents. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel green, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address. Owen contends that the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the pristine countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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David Owen

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 208 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,086 reviews7,007 followers
February 12, 2020
Surprise! New York City is a model of energy efficiency and low environmental impact. Because of its density and congestion, people walk and take mass transit rather than own autos. Most can't afford large apartments, so owners and renters occupy relatively small living spaces in terms of square feet per person. Waste heat is less because shared walls help heat adjacent homes. The list of advantages of dense urban living goes on and on.


In contrast, Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, is super-wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. Beijing is developing à la Los Angeles and losing whatever environmental efficiencies Old World China had.

The extended subtitle of the book tells us a lot: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability


The author has harsh but environmentally sound messages, some of which will make the rest of us carbon-conscious environmentalists cover our ears. Among them:

You're kidding yourself if you think driving your two-ton vehicle a half-hour to buy locally grown food is saving carbon.

Recycling may be better than trashing the stuff, but it's no substitute for not filing up your attic and garage in the first place.

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Powering our vehicles on natural gas won't help eliminate vary much carbon.

A lot of model environmental homes and LEED certified buildings aren't really all that energy efficient.

In terms of insulation (R-value), windows suck, no matter how energy efficient they claim to be.


You will want to read Green Metropolis because you are already environmentally conscious. But many may not want to hear what David Owen has to say because he doesn’t pull any punches about what is environmentally sound vs. what is fashionable.

The author has written widely on a number of topics, including the environment. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and previously for the Atlantic and Harper’s.

Images from (starting at top) cf.ltkcdn.net/greenliving/images
photo of the author from prhspeakers.com

Revised and pictures added 2/11/20

Profile Image for Ben.
173 reviews7 followers
May 18, 2011
This book is terrible. The premise is alright although no where near as revolutionary as Owen would lead you to believe, but the book is terrible.

The premise is that cities with a high population density are better for the environment than suburbs. People in cities use less space and less energy. Again, this isn't revolutionary. Years ago, I spent a semester in grad school looking at ways of increasing population density. The author makes it seem like all environmentalists hate cities, which sets him up as the sole prophet of population density, but he never differentiates between environmentalists and naturalists. Jefferson, Muir and the others were naturalists. They may have also been environmentalists but there is a difference. I feel like most environmentalists live in cities these days. Other than the premise, there were maybe 30 pages of useful, interesting information. I didn't know that people who get more fuel efficient drive more so higher fuel efficiency standards are basically a wash environmentally.

The author starts out on the wrong foot by focusing completely on New York City. NYC can be a good example in terms of public transportation and not using cars, but it's not the most densely populated city in the US, much less the world. "The problem we face is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents currently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with." So even if you've tried really hard to be environmental, built a net-zero home, biked to work, recycled, give up, you're not as environmentally responsible as the former Wall Street Exec who tired of rush hour traffic and decided to hire a helicopter to get him to and from work everyday (Too Big to Fail)... I feel like I don't even need to argue that because it's so pointless.

The other thing that really bothered me, and just got worse and worse the deeper into the book I got, is the author's extreme hypocrisy. He lives in a small town in Conneticut. He drives everywhere. He argues to make driving more difficult so people will do it less, yet when he has a chance to take the train into NYC, he drives. He addresses this hypocrisy in a paragraph or two in the last ten pages. He says that if he and his wife moved back to NYC, someone would buy his conneticut home and live in it and buy his car and drive it, so it's better that he and his wife are there because they both work at home. The hypothetical buyers of their house wouldn't work from home, of course they also might not drive their car to walk their dogs, which the author admits to doing. Since he's remained in his home, the hypothetical buyers have had to build a new home in small town Conneticut, and buy a new car and drive it. It's obviously better to have two families living in Conneticut and driving everywhere than one living in Conneticut and one living in NYC. The author admits to not even doing the small steps to reduce his energy use like adding insulation or moving his third floor office to the second floor. The price of gas dropped again, and even though he writes about how it's just going to go up and up, he lost his motivation to make an impact. It's the economy's fault, not his. Why did he even write the book? His attitude is that he can't make a difference, it's up to the government. I really, really hope not too many other people have that attitude because why would we even try?

Some lesser issues that I had with this book... LEED doesn't meet the author's high standards. Noone claims it's a perfect program. The author complains about the alternative fuel parking spots credit and brags about questioning it at a conference. The entire book is about density and he doesn't even mention the density credit. Also, towards the end, he says "environmentalists tend to focus on defending the places where people aren't rather than on intelligently organizing the places where people are" which is the whole point of LEED. Mies van der Rohe doesn't live up to the author's expectations which didn't sit well with me. The author complains about the local food movement. By his calculation, the blueberries that travel from California came in a truck full of blueberries reducing the embodied energy per blueberry while the blueberries at the farmer's market he has to drive 30 miles each way to cost a lot more energy-wise. He's missing the whole point of his entire book. If I walk to any of the three farmer's markets within a mile from my apartment, I can buy blueberries with almost no expenditure of energy.

I could go on, but I'll stop. I'll leave it at this, this book is terrible.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
November 13, 2010
I enjoyed this book very much. It surely turned my thinking about our living environment upside down. The book has thoroughly convinced me that dense cities with good infrastructure are the best solution to our long-term environmental problems. Densely packed buildings for living and working do save on most of our resources; fuel, heat, electricity, water

So, why doesn't the author move from his rural home back to the city? Owen addresses this question at the end of the book. He writes that if he were to move back to the city, someone else would buy your house and your material possessions, and that person would simply continue the environmentally unfriendly habits that you abandoned--there would be no net gain.

This does not sound logical to me, and I addressed an e-mail to him on this issue. I promptly received a detailed answer from Owen--what a happy surprise! He agreed with me, that his argument for not moving from the suburbs back to the city was flawed. He also wrote--and I tend to agree with him--that it will be very difficult to persuade people to move back from the suburbs into the city. Instead, we should not be investing public money in "dead-end" approaches that encourage sprawl and are fundamentally bad for the environment. Owen's book is filled with what I would call "unintended consequences"--that is, public policies that sound good superficially, but instead just help to increase sprawl and the degradation of our environment.
Profile Image for Cynda .
1,272 reviews147 followers
November 17, 2022
Living in New York City is ecologically wiser than living in the country. This does not surprise me. Shared apartment walls. Easy access to mass transit. Easy walking to restaurants and vendors.

Eating locally may not be the best option if one is driving and driving in a large vehicle to buy that local produce. Also if eating locally results the in-city gardens and farms become larger, then city sprawl results which leads to fewer people walking and fewer having access to mass transit as mass transit depends on population density.

At some point we will think about what is greener living and what is wasteful living. We will have to rethink what we do as a society. Practicing consumerism and the recycling items will not work long-term as recycled goods are of inferior quality. Ordering items and having them delivered the next day means faster depletion of carbon fuels. These are some difficult decisions in a society where people are accustomed to following their bliss.

Profile Image for ambyr.
879 reviews77 followers
June 27, 2016
There is a really good 10,000 word article here, but unfortunately rather than sell that to The Atlantic, the author chose to expand it into a book. The result is painfully repetitive, despite my general agreement with his basic ideas--cars are environmentally terrible, people are fundamentally motivated not by platitudes but by their own comfort/discomfort, zoning as currently practiced in the U.S. makes everyone's life worse, LEED is a mess, and density is the only true route to sustainability.

I also felt like Owen too often let perfect become the enemy of good enough. New York City is, indeed, the pinnacle of density--but culturally, economically, and even geologically, few other areas are suited to replicate it. That makes its value as a case study, to my mind, dubious; small-town America (or small-town anywhere else) will never become Manhattan. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to increase density and decrease car-dependency across America. So why not look to small and medium-sized cities for role models and policy ideas?

The answer seems to be at least in part that Owen is obsessed with New York (and with his own sense of guilt for being unable to stay there and live up to his environmental ideals). Fair enough--and I would actually have been interested in a more personal, intimate book that ruminated on why New York City has such a pull on the author and yet failed to hold him. But Owen shies away from the personal; we're told he couldn't stay in NYC, but we're never really told why. I can guess at answers, but I wish he'd given them outright instead. I am, after all, an urbanite to my core; the pull of the suburbs is a mystery to me, the desire to own a car baffling. I would have found the book more meaningful if it had given me more insight into the other side of that divide.
Profile Image for Shira.
108 reviews
January 10, 2010
Overall, I found this book repetitive and not all that interesting. The author tended to ramble a lot and tell somewhat irrelevant anecdotes to somehow illustrate a larger point. His tone was a bit arrogant, and he seemed to go out of his way to insult most issues that environmentalists hold dear. He had a point in many of those cases, but it was hard to get around his obnoxious tone.

What bugged me the most was his hypocrisy. He said that the most sustainable way for us to live is in big cities like New York (actually he really specifies Manhattan), but he hasn't lived there in 20 years! He lives in a remote suburb in Connecticut where he has to drive everywhere. This is the precisely the type of place he deplores in the book. I know that all of us experiences times when our beliefs and actions don't perfectly correspond, but if he is going to write a whole book about it, he should lead by example.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews623 followers
May 5, 2010
This book tries to make a surprising argument: the ultra-urban lifestyle of New York City is more environmentally sustainable than living in the suburbs or the country. But is that actually surprising? It seemed a little obvious to me. The author's point is that there is no lifestyle choice more significant to the environment than how much you drive. If you choose a lifestyle that involves a lot of driving, it doesn't matter how much you recycle or choose bamboo flooring or switch to a hybrid car; you'll never make your carbon footprint as small as that of a person who walks and rides public transit.

The book presents some good examples of greenwashing. The section on people affected by "LEED brain" is good, showing how LEED is a consumption-oriented way of measuring a building's environmental virtue. Still, large swaths of the book are dedicated to convincing the reader that New York City, despite all the concrete, is more environmentally sound that the leafier suburbs. Not only is this kind of self-evident to me, but it also is not especially germane to why I choose to live in the city without a car. Traffic gets closer to those reasons, which have to do with street life and the enjoyment of walking. If I didn't enjoy living in the city, I doubt I'd be any more virtuous than a person who drives a small car miles and miles every day.

I might recommend this book to someone who cares more about the environment than I do, but I didn't get that much out of it.
Profile Image for William.
162 reviews
May 12, 2015
This is a tough one to review. It's very clear and readable and not boring. His central point, that living in cities, i.e. high population density in vibrant neighborhoods, is environmentally (and probably in other ways) much better than sprawling, car-centered, low-density living, is well-backed-up and convincing.

But I get the feeling reading it that he is glossing over a lot of important points. He just barely pays attention to why so many people seem to want to move out into the suburbs, instead just sort of making the point that it would be good if everyone wanted to live in cities instead. But they don't.

He also barely touches on the fact that not everyone can live in cities, and there will still always be rural communities, which he basically dismisses.

And he himself lives out in the country, and gives a seemingly very hypocritical rationalization for why it's OK for him but bad for everyone else. But it still causes the reader to think about how and why the world could be better if people like the author (and everyone else, I guess) could live up to what he knows is better.

Good points are his takedowns of some of the trendy movements in design, like LEED certification and locavorism, and his discussion of the need for zoning reform, which is not always talked about.

Overall, it's a very good book because it is constantly thought-provoking, but it is partly thought-provoking because it is not always convincing. Definitely worth reading and thinking about.
Profile Image for jiji.
240 reviews
July 18, 2020
If you consider yourself an environmentalist because you drive a Prius, recycle, shop at the farmer's market and grow a few of your own vegetables, you are in for a rude awakening with this thought-provoking book. I wanted to plug my ears (I read the audio version) through much of the book because what Owen describes as environmentally sustainable ideas and behavior just doesn't jive with my sense of fun. In fact, Owen seems to have a little too much fun relinquishing the agricultural idealists among us of our fanciful "environmental" ideas. And even though this was a painful listen, I must admit that the man has a point.

Owen's basic premise is that densely populated cities like New York are inherently sustainable and environmentally friendly, thanks to concentration of resources and infrastructure (water, energy, food, roads, etc.), the fact that it's easier to walk or take the metro than to drive in New York, and the fact that most New Yorkers live in small dwellings with shared walls, meaning they spend less to heat and cool their apartments and can't accumulate as much stuff as those of us living in our luxurious, 2500 square foot mini McMansions. Some points and my thoughts:

-Driving needs to become unpleasant enough that people prefer to take public transport. The reason New Yorkers walk or take public transport is because driving is a nightmare. It's hard to make driving less appealing than public transport in the suburbs though, due to sprawl and toll roads, so people should really be living in more densely populated centers where public transport makes sense. I think he has a point here, because even though there are, technically, public transport options where I live (I could cross a road to the bus stop, take a one hour bus to the metro station, take the metro for one stop, then take another bus another 20 or 30 minutes to work) it's just much easier to sit in traffic for an hour each way. The author also says that high-mileage cars like the Prius, often just give people an excuse to drive more, even though it's more about total miles driven than mile per gallon. While I agree with this, I think it's going to be preeeeetty hard to convince a majority of Americans to move to the cities, and I'm less Draconian: If you need a car, I think you might as well buy the one that gets more miles per gallon.

-Green space isn't an efficient use of a city's real estate. Owen argues that New York would be better served if Central Park was broken up into smaller parks, because few people go into the interior of the park and it's not safe at night anyway. I don't know that I agree with this. Yes, it would be more efficient if cities were all concrete and metal with tiny little pocket parks thrown in for fun, but this removes humanity from cities, and a city with fewer green spaces is unlikely to attract more Americans. Also, I don't know that I agree that the interior parts of Central Park are underused. I think every city needs to have a large green space where a person can feel like they are "disappearing" into nature because, having lived in a very large city with nary a large park nearby, I know how draining and exhausting it can be to see nothing but transport, buildings, sidewalks, rail, etc. At some point, efficiency become inefficient. There's a tipping point. And to me, New York without Central Park just isn't complete.

-Industrial food production makes the most sense because food is produced in areas of abundance and shipped out to areas of less abundance. All this locavore/farmer's market whimsy is nice an all, but the local food movement is not sustainable. Owen gives the example of driving 30 miles round trip to pick blueberries, when he could have just walked to the grocery store to get blueberries that were shipped from California -- Calorie for calorie (and gas mile to gas mile) the California blueberries create less of a carbon footprint. I (sadly) agree that Owen is probably right about this, but I think it's a simplistic argument. Does the argument still hold if the farmer's market is a 15 minute walk or 5 minute drive from my house? Is there not something to be said for keeping (at least some) farmland farmland, and therefore preventing further sprawl? But maybe I just want to believe this because I myself enjoy going to the farmer's market, picking up my CSA box and growing some of my own vegetables. Maybe that's the version of sustainability I prefer to believe, and I'm deluding myself. I drive 16 miles round-trip to the farmer's market in my moderately fuel-efficient Honda Civic, but I could just pick up the same products (grown and picked in California, Florida, Mexico and Chile) for half the price and 1/4 of the distance at my local grocery store.

It's interesting because I've also been reading Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver, who are more of the back-to-the-earth, small-local-farms-grow-your-own food variety of environmentalism, and this is the kind of environmentalism that holds more sentimental appeal to me...but Owen does a pretty good job of turning this argument on its head by arguing that in no way could we feed the world on small, local farms. And you know Berry and Kingsolver are doing a lot more driving than the average New Yorker living, as they are, in the rural Appalachian Mountains.

But even if Owen makes a good argument for industrial food production, I'm not entirely convinced. As someone new to growing my own vegetable and purchasing all my produce from the farmer's market, I can say that I've gained a new appreciation for food as a living, mysterious and wonderful thing. Since I started planting my own food and spending a little more for locally grown produce, our household's food waste has gone way down, because I see the value in the things I buy and grow. They aren't just expendable commodities -- a peach, a tomato, a carrot -- these are things that grow from the soil, things that require water and sunlight and care to thrive, and they are meaningful and deserve to be treated with respect. Industrial agriculture, in my opinion, turns food into something that's easy to waste and hard to care about because it's so cheap and plentiful.

-Owen pooh-poohs things like composting, recycling, solar panels, energy-saving light-bulbs, etc., saying that if we really want to be environmental, these things are a far distant second to driving less and using less energy, and we'd be more environmentally conscious by living in cities. I think most municipalities' recycling programs are a joke. Most of the supposed "recycling" just ends up going to the dump. But done well, I do think recycling is important, and I think it's important for us to keep in mind that all the plastic we buy doesn't just disappear. And yes, while it would be great if more Americans chose to live in dense cities, why shouldn't those who decide to live in suburbs and rural locales do the things they can do, like change to energy-saving appliances (only when the ones they already have die, of course), recycle, compost, etc.? There is nothing like compost to give you feel-good vibes: Watching your food waste (banana peels, apple cores, cardboard boxes) turn into soil is nothing short of magical and gives you a whole other level of appreciation for soil. But again, maybe I'm just saying this because this is something I enjoy doing.

I do like that Owen talks about the importance of flying less. It always makes me cringe a little (yes, in a very judgmental way) when I hear of people flying to L.A for a long weekend, or going to Paris for four days. It feels wasteful. And yes, I used to do a lot of this myself, i my younger days. I think a lot of younger environmentalists tend to be blind to the carbon footprint of flying: They might drive a Prius and recycle and get a CSA box at the farmer's market, but they also take 40 flights a year in the name of experiential/cultural consumption. I'm not Draconian on this: I usually fly twice a year and don't expect people to quit flying, but I do think that as a whole, we could be more conscious and considerate of the environmental impact of flying.

I like the idea of smaller homes. Even for those of living in the suburbs or rural areas. You just can't accumulate as much stuff in 1200 or 1500 square foot house as you can in a 4000 square foot house. My house growing up was modest by American standards at 2500 square feet, but I remember that we had to buy furniture and stuff for unused rooms. We had a living we used about once a year with leather sofas, a nice coffee table and accent chairs. We had a dining room that I remember using a handful of times, but which had to be furnished with a large wooden dining room table, buffet and China Cabinet. Our garage was a 400 square foot storage unit, and I don't remember our cars ever actually fitting in there. Our 1200 square foot finished basement held our old furniture we weren't ready to give away yet. So I do agree that more space equals more stuff, because even if you never use your living room, it's a little creepy to have an entirely empty room in your house.

Owen's main argument is that government needs to make driving more challenging, because driving allows for inefficient sprawl and suburbs. He believes congestion is our friend, because the more unpleasant driving is, the more less likely we are to do it. While I was listening to this book, I was thinking about the new highway projects happening in my town of nearly 100,000 people. Even though most of the workers in my town work in D.C or closer in to D.C., the local government chose to expand the highway and add toll roads rather than adding a metro line...this is kind of an example of what Owen says, that projects like these are aimed to make driving easier for individuals, rather than contribute to sustainability and environmentally sound policies. So now, instead of 60 minutes, my commute might take 52 minutes, but I'm not lessening my carbon footprint in any meaningful way.

What's interesting is that Owen lives in semi-rural Connecticut with his wife, in a house far larger than necessary for two people. He lived in New York City as a young man, but left for the far-flung suburbs after having his first child. He notes he's often asked about this, and his argument for staying where he is is that he and his wife don't commute and live a very energy efficient lifestyle, so he'd rather his home be occupied by people like him and his wife, than some other family with a larger carbon footprint. OK, but now that other family can't move into his house, but they might move into a newly constructed, bigger house 10 miles further that will require an even bigger carbon footprint. Maybe Owen just likes the suburbs.

Another point that wasn’t touched on is that cities are not necessarily affordable for the average American. A lot of Americans move to the suburbs because they are fleeing gutted city public schools, and the average American can’t afford the $5,000 or $6,000 rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan (and that’s for a very modest place). Nannies, daycare and food are more expensive in Manhattan. It takes work to carry your weekly groceries up four flights of stairs, and to carry the stroller down those same stairs, especially if you can’t afford “help.” Americans don’t necessarily all move to the suburbs because they dream of manicured lawns, unused living rooms and massive highways (though some, I’m sure, do – my parents, for example, came to the U.S from Bogota, and were delighted by the pastoral landscapes of the suburbs) – a lot of us live in the suburbs because the city is financially out of reach (or we think it is) and because living in the suburbs is easier in many ways.
Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,105 reviews163 followers
August 24, 2019
Full of good interesting points, not a lot of things we can apply outside a large policy-level scale. Also he completely ignores how climate change is likely to wipe out large coastal cities like New York.
381 reviews4 followers
May 16, 2010
Some of David Owen's points about sustainability in this book were good; cars are a huge negative in terms of carbon emission and energy/oil use, and cutting down on their use is a good thing. At the same time, Jane Jacobs' book Life and Death of the American City (which Owen quotes frequently), already covered that. I definitely agree that spreading out our population is unsustainable, and Owen puts this idea out there in an understandable fashion; as a city dweller in Philadelphia, I see how much my environmental footprint has changed with access to public transportation and walking-distance stores and services. Owen points out how urban life helps counter these effects, focusing on New York City to the point one wonders if the ex-New Yorker regrets not living there anymore. It would have nice for him to explore other positive attributes of other cities in greater detail.

What I will not accept are his statements that energy saving and pollution cutting actions are essentially meaningless because they encourage low population density and therefore increase car usage. Owen proceeds to then put down every environmental strategy out there, accusing organizations like the Sierra Club for contributing to sprawl because of some anti-urban positions and for cultivating an interest in nature. Also, he refuses to address the fact that rural farming areas provide the support structure for the city (food, etc.), and therefore increased city sizes would logically require agriculture to expand in order to accomodate the needs for urban dwellers

What made me feel that Owen's logic had become particularly twisted were the following quotes (two sentences combined into one here): "It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular recreational activities..." The huge problem with that mindset is if people aren't experiencing nature, they won't learn to care about it, and therefore won't protect it from being chopped down for another strip mall. Only some interesting ideas stated earlier kept me from giving this book one star or stop reading it entirely.
Profile Image for Betsy Scherer.
158 reviews6 followers
January 22, 2021
I just finished this minutes ago over my lunch break so it’s still fresh! David’s thesis: living in a dense city is a significantly more sustainable decision over living in a suburb or the country. Which I find very intriguing!

The good: def enjoyed his perspective on LEED certification, solar panels, recycling, and eating locally. And how the discourse around these green practices is off and they have hidden / higher carbon footprints. There isn’t a be all, end all approach that will save or offset our carbon footprint - we need to make thoughtful decisions and do our research!!

The bad: I’m not totally sure who his target audience is but it’s not me. He goes realllllllllly in depth - perhaps a big thumbs up for a city planner but for an average reader interested in the environment, I was like 'holy freaking god buddy, too much!!!' Did I need 30 dense pages with every possible detail about LEED certification? Sure didn’t.

I also thought his argument would have been stronger if he had explored other US cities other than NYC. The NYC obsession was out of control IMO.

If this topic interests you, I highly recommend reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City instead!
Profile Image for Kate.
77 reviews4 followers
January 1, 2022
I found the author’s conclusions very interesting. I wish there had been more in terms of actual steps that individuals can take, though his point in part was that steps that individuals can take are too small to make a significant difference.
Profile Image for sara ibrahim.
46 reviews
October 23, 2021
3 stars only because i think the book could’ve been shortened by 100 pages without losing any real content. owen criticizes mainstream environmentalist beliefs in a way that forces you to address the ego-driven basis of modern/western environmentalism. most of the book felt like a laundry list of problems we have little to no power to solve, which is a fun way to trigger an existential crisis.
Profile Image for Keith.
56 reviews26 followers
April 25, 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.
Profile Image for Michael Potter.
Author 6 books7 followers
April 14, 2012
Originally posted to RE:Fraction International in March of 2010

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, by David Owen, Riverhead Books, NYC, 2009, 324pp, makes a great argument for people in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York, to enjoy the innumerable benefits of one of the greatest agents of environmental change that residents of New York City have (mostly) take for granted for hundreds of years, namely density. Consider these three points from early on in this fascinating book: “Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County.”(p. 2), “The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness.”(p. 3), and “Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they to the environment.”(p. 9) And that’s the selling point of this particular social commentary: Most people don’t consider New York City to be very “green,” but that’s because most people’s concept of “green” is mostly wrong. Per capita, residents of Vermont use three-and-a-half times more gasoline and those in Dallas use three times more electricity than their counterparts in New York City. ““I spoke with one energy expert, who, when I asked him to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the United States, said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.” In European cities, as in Manhattan, in other words, the most important efficiencies are built-in.”(p. 45)

Owen spends a considerable amount of time addressing the economics of oil (both the production and the consumption thereof) in relation to the benefits of high-density living because he asserts that “it is our cars that stand between us and solutions to our gathering energy nightmare.”(p. 114) As an example of this fact, he points to 4 Times Square, a Manhattan skyscraper (that I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of years ago after a reading on Columbus Circle) that includes many innovative environmental features “among them collection chutes for recycled materials, photovoltaic panes incorporated into parts of its skin, natural-gas-fired absorption chillers that provide heating and cooling, and curtain-wall construction with exceptional shading and insulating properties. In terms of the building’s true ecological impact, though, these and other overtly green innovations are distinctly secondary. The two greenest features of 4 Times Square are ones that [...] most other people never even mention: it is big, and it is in Manhattan.”(p. 205)

In “The Shape of Things to Come,” the final chapter of Green Metropolis, Owen writes about Beijing, stating that old Beijing’s neighborhoods worked well before they were paved over to support the millions of new vehicles flooding China’s roadways, and Dubai. And for the latter, he reserves some of his best contempt for sprawl and consumption for the sake of consumption: “Dubai has often called itself a city of the future, but it is actually a city of the past, an explosively growing monument to unsustainability.”(p. 295) In the cities of Northern New York, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the existing infrastructure, stunning architecture, and collective power (both literal and metaphorical) that Owen captures so engagingly in this prolonged thesis about the environmental lessons that we can all learn from Manhattan’s urban efficiencies.
Profile Image for Jessica.
49 reviews4 followers
August 16, 2014
There were things I liked about this book, and things I didn't. First off, I found myself often wondering what environmental movement he was talking about, as just about every environmentalist I am familiar with is singing the praises of urban living. Clearly, David Owen doesn't read Grist. And yet, he eventually told us what environmentalists he was talking about, and I guess I have to admit that there are some who just don't seem to get it.
I also thought the tone of the book was pretty lousy. It seemed like all he wanted to do was criticize everything everyone else had done wrong, and mock those who thought they had a good idea that didn't end up working out. This is annoying, especially in light of the fact that he had no solutions to offer (which, to be fair, at least he admitted how lousy that is) or ideas of his own.

All of that being said, I liked several points:
That denser living is more efficient.
That we are better off trying to make driving unpleasant/expensive than more efficient.
That financial incentives should be made, because without them most people will never change, and even those who will won't change enough.
That we will need to employ different solutions for different regions.
That scientists should also take credit for what they did to contribute to this problem. In other words, that we need to recognize that science is not infallible, it was science, after all, that developed all the technology that caused these problems, and worshipping or counting on science to save us now with some miraculous technology might end up having other unforeseen consequences we can't even imagine now. Not to say we should give up on the idea of science and technology helping, but maybe instead of jumping on every fad that hasn't been thoroughly tested, we should do some of the less glamorous but time tested efficiency boosters instead.

I did not like:
His take on local food, but I think he perhaps lacks some horticultural expertise that might change his opinion. His evaluation of local food did give me some things to think about, but I think his idea of what local food is or can be is limited.
Profile Image for Todd Martin.
Author 4 books74 followers
June 5, 2019
The premise of Green Metropolis is that cities (particularly those with high population densities) are good for the environment … or at least better for the environment than say, the ecological blight that is urban/suburban sprawl. David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker, presents this as somewhat of a revelation, but this is a fact has been known for quite some time. In cities it’s easier to get around using public transportation, homes are smaller (using less energy for heating and cooling, as well as requiring fewer objects for furnishing), and there are efficiencies of scale (fewer resources associated with: running and delivering utilities, mail, garbage collection, policing, etc.) than in a dispersed suburb. Though Owen mainly focuses on the environmental effects associated with resource use (fossil fuels in particular), a denser concentration of people into cities would have a secondary benefit of leaving more space for preservation of species and the ecosystems on which they (and we) depend.

After laying out the arguments for environmental benefits of cities, Owen spends the bulk of the remaining chapters discussing fossil fuels in general and transportation in particular, with an emphasis on strategies for designing infrastructure in a way that reduces automobile use. Although these chapters are somewhat repetitive, Owen makes two important points that I believe are given short shrift by many environmentalists.

First, although he doesn’t refer to it by this name, he discusses the economic principle known as the Jevons paradox. This paradox occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand. The Jevons paradox is named after the English economist and logician William Jevons, who observed that an increase in the efficiency of using coal to produce energy tended to increase consumption, rather than reduce it. This was due to the fact that the cheaper price of coal energy encouraged people to find new ways to consume energy. Similarly, many environmental organizations view fuel-efficient or hybrid automobiles as a means to reduce fossil fuel use. The problem is that if enough people follow this example, the demand for gasoline decreases and prices decline. However, lower prices encourage people to drive more and some of the gains are lost due to increased consumption. Thus the paradox. Buy a more efficient air conditioner? Great! Now I can cool my home to 76F instead of 78F for the same cost. Install LED lighting? Might as well light up the house like a Christmas tree.

This brings us to Owen’s second major point … it’s not enough to buy a fuel efficient vehicle or make highways more efficient since it’s the cars themselves that are the problem. If you want to reduce reliance on single occupancy vehicles, infrastructure needs to be designed in a way that makes automobile use a deeply unpleasant experience. That’s right, gridlock, congestion, high gas prices and inconvenient parking should be the goals of good infrastructure planning, not problems to be solved. Of course gridlock is not enough, you also need convenient, efficient and affordable public transportation, pleasant bicycle and pedestrian paths and shops and other destinations located within reasonable proximity. While many will find this objectionable, perhaps even outrageously so, Owens is absolutely correct on this point. Exorbitant gas prices are good for the environment.

In the latter chapters Owen eviscerates Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and other green building certifications as little more than green washing, contrasting them (unfavorably) with high density, vertical urban construction. He nails it – no amount of recycled carpeting, rain catchment basins, solar panels or bamboo flooring matters if you locate the green building 30 miles from the nearest population center. Any environmental benefit is quickly eclipsed by the effects of transportation.

I give the books fairly high marks, but I do want to address what seems to be one of its common criticisms. Many reviewers make much of the fact that Owen, who extolls the green benefits of urban living, abandoned New York City for small town life in Connecticut.
1. This is a logical fallacy (often referred to as ‘poisoning the well’). Whatever Owens personal lifestyle may be, it in no way diminishes the factual information presented in the book. The one has no bearing on the other. Although I can’t help but to admit that his excuse … if I didn’t live in a big house in the country, then someone else would have … is incredibly lame. Though I may try to use that one next time I feel the urge to fart in an elevator.
2. Those who brand Owen a ‘hypocrite’ need to acknowledge … with regards to the environment, you could literally apply this term to EVERYONE. Every single person alive today engages in some form of behavior that has negative consequences for the planet. Granted, some have more of an effect than others, but even the greenest of the green individual can’t help but consume natural resources to survive.

I will criticize Owen for something else though … he’s an avid golfer, in fact most of his what he’s written professionally concerns this topic. Here’s the thing though, golf courses are environmental catastrophes. From habitat destruction, to hyper-consumption of water, fertilizer and pesticides to the fossil fuels necessary to maintain them, they are epicenters of environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. He should take up another hobby, like coal mining … it would be considerably less destructive.

Finally – as is typical of most breeders, Owen largely neglects the single biggest factor responsible for the environmental ills we face today … overpopulation. Guess what? If you reduce population you can halt urban sprawl, reduce the number of single occupancy dwellings, reduce the number vehicles and vehicle miles traveled and reduce fossil fuel consumption. Know what else? We know how to do it. Effective contraception can be found no further than your neighborhood drug store. Like the environmentalists he criticizes, Owen also has a blind spot that prevents him from comprehending the true nature of the problem … he ignores the true underlying cause of ALL environmental issues - population. Until this fact is recognized no amount of greening around the margins, such as those which he proposes, is likely to have any measurable beneficial effect.
Profile Image for Heather Denkmire.
Author 2 books15 followers
November 13, 2010
I wish I could say I "really liked" this because I did really (really, really, really!) like learning that living in cities can be and frequently is better for the environment than living out in the country. I prefer city living (and I don't mean Portland (Maine) which I consider a large town) and "getting away" to the country. Because I was under the misconception that city living was necessarily irresponsible in an environmental way there was always a little niggling bit of shame in my preference. So, that's gone, and that's nice. The book, though, was really repetitive. It made the points (Manhattan should be a model for the rest of us) again and again without, I think, adding much new as it went along.

It's possible, though, I was just so annoyed with the reader (audio book) and his holier-than-thou righteous indignation tone that I had a hard time staying connected to it. Honestly, I was glad when I saw I was almost finished with it because the guy's voice and tone were bringing me down.

It really has me motivated, I must say, to finally get deeper into the book-book I've been puttering away at about Localism and the Global Economy. Owen, in Green Metropolis, makes a pretty strong case that the localvore movements of which I consider myself a part, aren't actually all that beneficial for the environment in general and may even be worse than buying whatever's the least expensive. That goes against my gut instinct, but it's something I'm investigating.
Profile Image for Alisa.
554 reviews
October 31, 2012
The premise of this book… that densely-settled, public-transportation-depend cities are the most sustainable way for people to live… seems very true and believable, so much so that I got tired of the author trying so hard to convince me of what I had already accepted by the first chapter. I wish instead that he had spent more time explaining how the uniquely green aspects of Manhattan can be in any way be applied to existing communities that are small or already sprawl victims. I came up with some of my own ideas (about changing zoning laws, building guidelines, and road construction priorities) that might help, but I would've loved it if the author had given some positive examples of how communities other than Manhattan have made progress in the right direction. Instead, there was depressing example after depressing example of growing worldwide car dependence. But overall, I certainly found this is a very thought-provoking book, one that I hope city planners around the world will read. Some of the most fascinating parts of this book are in the details about what drives human behavior, from pedestrians who perceive distances differently depending on what they are walking through to homeowners who blindly pick the most expensive and least sustainable of the green "bling" that is promoted today. Also, I now know about the upside of traffic jams, so the next time I get stuck in one I can consider it to be a "green" thing to do!
9 reviews
March 16, 2014
Intriguing, very counterintuitive. The book is essentially a systematic debunking of all the assumptions Americans commonly make about what sustainable, green living would look like. For example, it would *not* involve buying a Prius, installing high-tech windows, putting in solar panels, shifting toward consumption of locally produced food and other goods, building LEED certified buildings, or moving to a rural area and "living off the land." On the contrary, any of those steps would more than likely, according to Owen, be a net negative for the environment. The key instead, says Owen, is to live smaller, closer together, and with dramatically reduced auto usage--in other words, to live in a place like Manhattan (which Owen views as the greenest place in the U.S.). There are a few arguments that I think are not fully explained/defended (for example, are there no instances when locavorism makes environmental sense?), and Owen's defense of his decision to live in a rural area instead of in a city is pretty pathetic (it boils down to "someone else would live here if we didn't," which ignores the fact that his move would represent an encouragement for the city to grow and the rural areas not to grow; it also ignores the fact that another family--say, one with kids--could make more productive use of his 3-story home than he can, being that it's just him and his wife). Aside from those small flaws, though, a very interesting, engaging, and persuasive argument.
Profile Image for Sarah.
143 reviews5 followers
February 18, 2011
The author raises a lot of interesting points, but it's hard to take him seriously when he doesn't back them up with alternate solutions, numbers or anything really other than complaints. This book is an ode to New York City, if it doesn't work like New York, it stinks in terms of its environmentalism. LEED stinks, cars stink (big and small, hybrid and not), houses, malls, other cities, sprawl, locavorism, widening roads, parks in the middle of a city, sidewalks that are too big. Basically nothing is good, this guy complains a lot.

Nonetheless it was interesting to see things from a new perpective. But perhaps if the author provided some alternate suggestions, other than "be like New York", I would respect his book more. Oh well, that and the fact that at the end he said people often ask if he thinks New York City is so great, why did he move to the burbs? Good question right? His answer was basically because someone will live there, it might as well be him. And he plans to live there as efficiently as possible... at least he was making efficiency improvements in his house until the gas prices went back down, then he put it off again. ... Seriously?

November 18, 2011
In the last 2 chapters or so, Owen seems to really revel in his polemics and keeps tacking on opinions which run contrary to typical environmental creed. Unfortunately many of these are badly supported or not supported at all. He pretty much completely avoids the psychological implications of not living near nature. He references "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv and dismisses its thesis as nostalgic in about two sentences. Yes, we all can't live in a cabin in the woods, because we would wreck the Earth with sprawl, but how about discussing some alternatives between New York City and rural New England?

I was also somewhat disconcerted when he keeps emphasizing the environmental cost of living further apart when he rarely quantifies it. Owen has fun railing on the "environmentally conscious" who have high tech, allegedly low impact abodes, but he rarely runs the numbers to show us what the magnitude of difference is between long commutes, big houses and NYC living. Some more numbers with the anecdotes would have been nice.

Overall, I agree with his thesis but the support could use more depth in some places.
Profile Image for Anna Carlsson.
14 reviews
July 7, 2012
Really interesting book. Granted, it mostly confirmed beliefs I've had for a while about why cities are inherently more sustainable (density being the top reason), but I also appreciated his insight into how the traditional environmentalist movement, which is more about glorifying nature than sustaining it, has actually hurt the earth. Also: we're fucked. I came away from from this feeling like the values and traditions that make our lifestyles so inherently destructive are far too entrenched to be changed in time to change our course. How can we address the issues brought upon us by a car-based way of life, when so much of our nation was built in a time when automobile-loving architects and urban planners like Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to fight the "fibrous tumors" of big cities? The U.S. is distinguished from other nations by a deeply rooted anti-urbanism, and although some communities are attempting to fight that using the tools of Smart Growth and New Urbanism, I don't think the majority of Americans, even the green-minded ones, will ever be willing to give up their car and live like a New Yorker.
Profile Image for Jennyb.
643 reviews16 followers
March 8, 2015
Urban development and sustainability are two topics that are quite close to my heart, being a committed bike-riding, inveterate urbanite. So in some ways, I couldn't go wrong with a book from an expert extolling some of my favorite ideas about urban density, the importance of transit, and the un-sustainability of sprawl.

The whole thing, alas, is nearly ruined by the knowledge that the author, of all people, does not practice what he spends hundreds of pages preaching, and instead lives the car-dependent, sprawl-enabled lifestyle he says cannot be sustained. The worst part? His utterly lame and indefensible excuse about why he does: Well, even if I weren't here, living like this, someone else would be.

Are you kidding me?!

As lame as that is, it's even more broadly discouraging when you consider that if someone who is expert on these matters cannot be bothered to live a sustainable, environmentally conscious life, how much less can you hope that the rest of society will do so?
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,812 reviews33 followers
June 18, 2014
The argument that people who love nature should probably live in big cities may seem counter intuitive on the surface, but it makes perfect sense to me. Suburban sprawl, where no one walks anywhere and public transportation is a laugh, basically forces people to drive miles to get anywhere while simultaneously turning the landscape into asphalt and turf grass. Owen's point about mixed zoning is an excellent one.

I also like the point he makes about the boring things like insulation and water use being far more important than things like solar panels and fancy windows. "If it's not boring, it's not green."

A very good book about moving toward a truly sustainable lifestyle. I highly recommend it.
July 21, 2019
Owen makes some good points about building green (things like prioritizing insulation, reducing the size of a space, and considering the building's relationship to the community around it). However, I found his argument slightly repetitive and inconsiderate of the reality that most people simply can't afford to live in high density areas. A study recently came out that said to afford a one bedroom apartment in my city, a person would have to make $22/hour. The minimum wage is only $14/hour. Mind you, this is the average of the city - rent in the urban core is much higher. I also would have appreciated metric conversions for things like gallons of gas and square miles.
Profile Image for Brandon Pytel.
433 reviews6 followers
December 29, 2021
Possibly one of my favorite books of the year. I recently bought this book after reading a 2004 essay in The New Yorker, “Green Manhattan” by David Owen, a precursor to what would eventually become this book.

Like the essay, this book follows a simple, yet often overlooked, idea: “New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms." Owen chronicles his own time in a Connecticut suburb versus his time in Manhattan, and the differences of lifestyles and waste, largely due to the sprawling properties and lack of public transit.

He equates the hostile toward cities dating back to the American ideals held by Thoarea, Jefferson, and John Muir, all of which advocated for large, open, untouched spaces at the edges of civilization.

Those same spaces are reflected in large, green areas in cities, which look green but are actually a net negative for the environment because they give the perception of distance and spread out the city and therefore encourage driving rather than walking (e.g., Central Park, though beautiful and a symbol of conservation, is seldom walked across by New Yorkers).

That green ideology become a rural ideology, one that depends on cars to get from place to place (something that is infuriating about living in D.C., which requires a car to get to nearby Shenandoah, and at least an hour on bike or public transit to get to Rock Creek Park, which is even in the District).

NYC offers lessons in greening that are the cornerstones of this book: live smaller, live closer, and drive less.

Owen then dives into the country’s history with oil and how price affects the market and how Americans associate that price and access with freedom and how by driving down price, we actually encourage people to drive more — an idea that, if reversed, becomes one of the main ideas of this book:

We reduce driving by making it more inconvenient to drivers, putting up obstacles, rather than aiming to build more roads to relieve congestion, something that merely exacerbates the problem by encouraging more people onto the roads (and something that cities are willing to do when urban areas aren’t dense enough to support public transit).

Obstacles like speed bums, legalizing jay walking, four-way stop signs, street furniture. and removal of travel lanes keeps in-town traffic slow enough to reduce accidents and keep areas safe for pedestrians, all while reducing space devoted to cars in favor of a shared model with bikes and buses.

The goal for so many infrastructure projects Is to increase car volume, reduce commute time, and increase average speed — in other words, making commutes more pleasant, a win for drivers but a loss for the environment.

The efficiency paradox is also worth nothing: “Increases in fuel efficient can actually be bad for the environment if they aren’t accompanied by cost increases, tax hikes, or policy measures that lead consumers to feel they have no choice but to find or create alternatives to hundred-mile solo car commutes.”

By encouraging driving, we create suburbs, which are much worse for the environment as they require people to use cars to get to them. As Owen writes, “in the long run, a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer.” Zoning further encourages car use by separating businesses from residences from public institutions. And by being so spread out, public transit is virtually eliminated, as such services can only justify themselves in densely packed areas, by Owen’s estimate, seven dwellings an acre.

Instead, Owen proposed to impose high fees for automobile access and parking; gradually reducing automobile capacity; and increasing capacity, frequency, and efficiency of public transit.

Owen then turns to attacking the LEED system, a needlessly complicated building certification program that leads to green add-ons while ignoring the environmental benefits of public transit access and density, leading to lavish buildings that are impossible to get to in anything but a car, yet still figure as “green.” That mentality of grid independence, even if it’s all solar powered, is the same mentality that contributed to American individualism and house ownership in the first place — wasteful luxuries that are terrible for our planet.

As China, India, and other countries mimic American sprawl, our planet is all for the worst. We must revert this “progress,” while also redefining American development and reversing structural incentives that guarantee harmful outcomes, cater to political and commercial self-interest, and make feel better without accomplishing anything.

That last point includes letting go of the consumer culture of greenwashing, buying new, energy efficient appliances and cars rather than making use of our current ones — as well as holding onto self-righteous attitudes of recycling and locavorism, which because of its inefficiencies (driving 50 miles from a farm for a small bushel of crops) is less environmentally sound than shipping them across the country.

We must increase incentives to alleviate the environmental and wastefulness crisis across many communities, something that can often only be done at the federal level, including, upgrading our grid and investing in large-scale centralized renewable energy, as well as imposing taxes, fees, and land-use regulations, shifting development away from places where population growth is not dense.

That will not only take ambition at the policy level, but also a complete mindset change, from the American dream of homeownership and suburban lifestyles to the densely packed, but communal and diverse, cities.
935 reviews7 followers
June 26, 2020
For my final month of reading and reflecting on scholar level, non-scientific books for the forseeable near-future, my random grab off the library book shelf has brought you today the musings of David Owen’s “Green Metropolis: Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less.”

Essentially, there you have it right in the title! Owen’s thesis is essentially that in the coming future where there is a lot less of everything for a whole heck-of-a-lot-more people, the only sustainable way to live is going to be in dense urban centers like that of Manhattan where people live much closer together, live in very small homes, and where only 15% of employed persons drive a car to work.

Although, for someone making a 3-point argument, he actually spends 90% of his book expounding upon that last bit about driving less. Which is essential because what he’s calling for sounds pretty darn preposterous for those of us (most of us) having grown up in parts of the country that have wholesale offloaded the responsibility of transportation to the individual. Driving is a huge component of our culture, we derive status and authority from our freedom to drive. But in a sense, that same sense of entitlement has more or less owned us, not the other way around David Owen would argue. Suburbs are designed and zoned without the density to support mass-transit, without the mixed-used space to encourage biking or walking between destinations which are far-flung and separated by enumerable obstacles such as busy 3-lane highways and disparate and expansive parking lots.

We’ve created a way of living totally dependent upon personal transportation.

This, Owen’s argues, is unsustainable.

The average city dweller consumes far fewer natural resources and significantly less electricity than a typical suburbanite. Not necessarily by choice, Owen reminds the reader, but due to the necessity of living in the city. When your grocery, Laundromat, work, and gym are all within a couple blocks of where you live… with numerous destination in-between, walking, biking, or mass transit are the simplest choices. And inherently, the greenest choices. Owen points out that this is in direct opposition to what “Green Thinking” would lead most of us to conclude, that living in the country with your photovoltaic cells and compost heaps in the back-40 is the most harmonious, Green way to live. Harmony with nature may be what you achieve, but most likely at the cost of the nature you so desire to protect. It is unsustainable in a future with additional billions clambering for the same ground. If the same Manhattan millions were spread the density of an average suburb, it’d cover nearly all of New England, along with all of New England’s natural beauty.

David Owen’s places much emphasis on the fact that as one scales and concentrates a particular activity, it becomes more efficient. It also become more economically viable to be made additionally efficient and non-pollutive. Concentrate the humans and their living/working activity here… concentrate the food growing activities there… etc. And by doing so, you reduce the “embedded inefficiencies” of requiring all 500 of your employees to drive 19 miles to get to your corporate campus, the cost of bringing additional and redundant power substations and schools and roads and small clinics and police stations to an ever-spread population to support your “Green,” LEED certified campus that outside of town and impossible to service by shared transit.

So, I kinda agree with him.

But his idea of getting us there is to impose the true cost of car-driving onto the driver rather than have the local utilities and school districts pick up the tab. And I think that that, unfortunately, will be something the American people will forever resist…until the last oil reserve hath runneth dry!

One of the things I let my mind dwell on as I read this book was what the implications may be for the financially-strapped families from which many of my youth come. For them, the more reliable and available the public transit, the better! If my students had only to walk down the street to get to their job, it would remove one of the greatest uncertainties and difficulties in maintaining a job: getting there. I would love to know more about how non-profits function in dense urban cores, whether or not they are also more effective, and to what extent are the services they provide different because of different needs…

Overall, a thought-provoking read and highly recommended! He even refers to some other books I’ve seen people here reading. Check it out, and check your odometer – because in his words, that’s more important than your MPG. ;)
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