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Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  1,261 ratings  ·  187 reviews
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
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 24th 2009 by Riverhead Hardcover (first published 2009)
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Average rating 3.71  · 
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 ·  1,261 ratings  ·  187 reviews

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Jim Fonseca
Oct 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 su
May 17, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 set
Nov 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 02, 2010 rated it did not like it
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
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 ca ...more
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 ...more
Apr 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
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, ins
Ericka Clouther
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.
So, the first part seemed fairly repetitive and boring, though I do think it makes a good point:

Trying to live near nature isn't the same thing as trying to protect it. Suburban sprawl is far worse for the environment than dense urbanism. The main reason for this is that a sprawly city requires more car travel than a dense urban one. Also, larger, detached, single-family houses require more energy for heating/cooling.

In dense cities, planners and engineers are often trying to find ways to make t
Apr 12, 2010 rated it it was ok
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 argu
Michael Potter
Jan 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 06, 2010 rated it it was ok
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 m ...more
Jul 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
Todd Martin
Jun 05, 2019 rated it liked it
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 cooli ...more
Heather Denkmire
Nov 09, 2010 rated it liked it
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 prefere ...more
Oct 31, 2012 rated it liked it
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 so ...more
Jan 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jan 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 nothi ...more
John Stevenson
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 ...more
Anna Carlsson
Jul 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: urbs-aeterna
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-
Jun 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Mario Mariotta IV
Feb 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone outside of cities and people who think they are environmentalists but hate cities
BIAS DISCLAIMER: I'm an environmentalist and pro-urban, pro-city or whatever. I love cities, so I came to this book already biased. I loved cities since I was a child, yet I was and am still a biodiversity conservationist and habitat restoration implementer and sustainability aware. I felt conflicted for most of my life, but then I realized that my love for cities and my passion to preserve and protect "the environment", i.e. wildlands, nature preserves, high quality habitats, were completely al ...more
Camille McCarthy
Sep 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Much of this book is also covered in "the Conundrum," although that book is a lot shorter and covers many more topics than this one does.
I appreciated going further in-depth regarding how to plan cities to be more environmentally friendly, because I thought that "the Conundrum" didn't give enough detail to make me see the solutions, only the problems. In particular, I enjoyed the part about LEED certification and how it can be improved.
He has a bit of a cranky-old-man tone, in much the same
Wendi Lau
Sep 19, 2017 rated it liked it
The beginning of this book is off-putting as Mr. Owen extols the environmental EFFICIENCY of large urban areas. New York City is his primary example, compared to his newer locale in the suburbs. I thought he meant large cities are better overall, while I argue a decreased quality of life, increased crime, and fewer green spaces as urban density increases. However, Mr. Owen tends to stick to addressing resource efficiency, which really, is what true green living and environmentalism should be abo ...more
Dec 05, 2017 rated it liked it
An important book for environmentally conscious citizens to read. Although I got annoyed at times with how many times the author demonstrates how everything we customarily believe to be environmentally friendly is actually not so great for the environment (I often thought "what is there that we can do to help the environment?"), here's what I think are the laudable and essential takeaways:

"[T]he Civilian Conservation Corps . . . put unemployed young men to work . . . primarily in state and natio
Matthew J.
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Definitely an interesting take on city living as an environmental boon. Owen takes us through the horrors of the oil boom and coming bust, the grim, meathook reality of a finite resources with its best days long behind us. He talks about some of the ill conceived, short-sighted, and sometimes placating environmental efforts that simply don't work, or don't do enough when faced with reality. I often think of the phrase "reduce, reuse, and recycle." Well, two out of three ain't bad. But when recyc ...more
Gemma Seymour
Aug 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Should be required curriculum in our schools.

David Owen is one of the most important living American writers. If human civilisation is going to survive the consequences of its own making, then it is clear that we all have to stop substituting the profligate consumption of Nature for better choices and better design which obviates consumption. "Green Metropolis", as well as Owen's later book, "The Conundrum", should be required curriculum in all schools. Technology cannot rescue humanity from the
Aug 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Overall, I found this book repetitive and the arguments simplistic. There are a few interesting discussions about LEED building standards and energy efficiency. The author rambles at times and lacks proper evidence to support many of his claims. This book claims that New York City is the most sustainable model for the future. Urban vs suburban is a fairly simple environmental premise.
The arguments were mostly against urban sprawl without any discussion of rural environments.

The main discussion
Bennett Sciacca
May 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book challenges the way we think about environmentalism. Owen presents a number of compelling arguments that dispell the myths of urban centers being environmentally unfriendly, and it is hard to argue against his rationale. I think this is an important book to read - particularly for anyone who cares about the environment and or urbanism. My frustration with this book stems from the fact, like other reviewers wrote, the author constantly follows up his very intriguing arguments with "this ...more
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“The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a “sustainable” house, office building, or household appliance, for the same reason that there can be no such thing as a one-person democracy or a single-company economy.” 4 likes
“There are too many people in the world, and too many more are on the way. This is an issue that, in the United States, both conservatives and liberals have often seemed eager to avoid--for conservatives, perhaps, because it raises questions about family size, birth control, and abortion, and for liberals because it raises questions about immigration. Every one of the world's environmental problems is made worse by increases in the number of humans, and, most of all, by increases in the number of Americans, since U.S. residents--whether manufactured locally or imported from abroad--have the largest energy and carbon footprints in the world.” 1 likes
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