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What's the Big Hubbub Over a New Book Arguing NYC Is America's Greenest City?

New Yorker writer David Owen has environmentalists shooting broadsides at his new book; do we really want to replicate the Big Apple across America?
 
 
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David Owen's new book, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, has irked of a lot of environmentalists. And not just the more radical of the set, but even folks reviewing for such mainstream publications as the New York Times.

The book's premise is that New York is the greenest city in the country and should be a model for sustainability elsewhere.

At first, the book seems like a long-sought piece of good news amid the constant stream of headlines trumpeting environmental doom. For starters, the book kicks off with some positive numbers about environmental impact.

Owen writes: "Thanks to New York City, the average resident of New York state uses less gasoline than the average resident of any other state. ... Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle or on foot. That's 10 times the rate for Americans in general. ... The average New Yorker (if one takes into consideration all five boroughs of the city) annually generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases, a lower rate than the residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average."

These are indeed impressive statistics, but as the book continues, the original point seems to become muddied in his criticism of the environmental movement, and practical prescriptions for change are hard to find from Owen.

And when you look a little more at his background that may not be surprising. To be sure, Owen is an accomplished writer, with 12 other books under his belt, but his enviro credentials are lacking. Since 1991, he has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, but his beats are popular culture and sports.

This book sprung out of an article he wrote a few years ago for the magazine, but it seems that in trying to extol New Yorkers' environmental virtues, he overlooked some amazing projects happening in urban areas across the country.

Owen hits on a few important veins of truth, but then the book fails to go anywhere meaningful. And to make matters worse, in the intervening pages he takes more than a few swings at what he sees as a misguided environmental movement. Consequently, many from that movement are swinging back.

But, here's the good news, where Owen misses the mark, it leaves the door open for an even more in-depth look at how cities may help shape a more sustainable future.

Big Apple Goes Green

Owen believes it will take a lot of persuading to get people to think of crowded cities like New York as anything other than "ecological calamities."

He writes: "A dense urban area's greenest features -- its low per-capita energy use, its high acceptance of public transit and walking, its small carbon footprint per resident -- are not inexplicable anomalies. They are the direct consequences of the very urban characteristics that are the most likely to appall a sensitive friend of the earth. Yet those qualities are ones that the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate. ... In terms of sustainability, dense cities have more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns."

Here Owen makes some good points (and I think most sensible environmentalists would already agree with his basic premise). There are clear benefits to living in a dense space such as New York, and more urban areas would do well to focus development on in-fill instead of spilling over to the suburbs.

 
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