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

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.

The car is Owen's nemesis, and it's easy to see why. We now live in a time when the number of cars in the country exceed the number of licensed drivers, and each day Americans burn 390 million gallons of gasoline as we zip down our streets and highways, he explains.

And the car, Owen reminds readers, contributes not just to our carbon emissions from driving, but also aids in the consumption of more goods. After all, if we are driving to the store, we can certainly bring home more stuff.

In New York City, people don't drive all that much (and mostly don't even own cars), and they live in much smaller spaces, which also cuts down on how much you can accumulate. It's also less likely you'd have a lawn to water or mow in the city (unless, perhaps, a small plot in one of the boroughs), which is also good for conserving resources.

And when winter comes around, if you're up near the top of a building, chances are you'll never put the heat on because your neighbors down below will have warmed the place for you. This allows New Yorkers to use less energy compared with folks who live in rural and suburban areas -- all good news.

The beauty of cities like New York is just how much is steps away. You don't have to drive to the grocery store or the pharmacy, they're just around the corner. This is vastly different from the suburbs, where, Owen points out, much of it seems designed to thwart anything being easy to get to. Many zoning laws actually prevent density, Owen writes, and therefore results in towns where walking is discouraged and cars are encouraged. This is bad news for the environment.

While New Yorkers get Owen's applause for taking public transit, that doesn't apply to the folks riding trains like Metro North or the Long Island Railroad, which connect the city to the suburbs. This, Owen says, helps enable more sprawl.

But surely we couldn't take the several million Long Islanders and cram them into Manhattan could we? At what point does the city reach its carrying capacity? Owen doesn't say.

But there are good reasons to ask. While dense urban areas have a lot of benefits, it would have been useful if Owen addressed the drawbacks -- especially if we are to start seeing cities as model communities.

For one, New Yorkers generate a lot of garbage -- some of which is shipped as far as 300 miles away (although Owen doesn't figure this into his calculations of New Yorkers' carbon footprints, nor does he even mention garbage).

"Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York, and assuming a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move garbage from New York City daily," SustainLane reports. "These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly 9 miles long -- impeding traffic, polluting the air and raising carbon emissions."

This seems worthy of at least a mention, right? Owen also neglects to mention water issues, toxics and air pollution in any significant way -- all major environmental issues for dense urban areas.

Why Bigger Can Be Better

Owen is quick to pooh-pooh almost anything that seems like it might have environmental benefits -- things like high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the highway that encourage carpooling (this makes driving more pleasant and therefore bad); same goes for congestion pricing, hybrids and Smart cars.

Solar panels, wind turbines and any sort of green design is scoffed at as a folly for the rich and stupid. Even Central Park he thinks is too big -- more akin to sprawling suburbs, where things are spaced too far away from each other.

He also takes a direct stab at "environmentalists" -- as if this groups has a uniform identity. He sees these folks as all Sierra Club card-toters who have altars erected for John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, nevermind benefits we all reap from over a century of conservation efforts.

"Environmentalists have tended to think of themselves as defenders of what's left, rather than shapers of what lies ahead," he writes. "From an environmental point of view, we need to apply ourselves to making city life appealing and life-enhancing, not to wishing that doing so were unnecessary."

Instead of spending our time protecting the places where people are not, we should working to fix the places where people are, he says.

But, I'd argue, we should (and are) doing both. In a review in the New York Times, Elizabeth Royte wrote: "If no one defends the places people are not, they won't be people-free for long. Not only will we lose the idea of wilderness -- which some consider essential to our human identity -- but we'll lose its invaluable services, like the protection of drinking water and the sequestration of carbon."

Precisely. And what about the groups that are already working to make city life better? Owen never mentions them, but he should have. There are tons.

New York itself is home to the amazing organization Sustainable South Bronx, which is operating in an area that Owen seems to have overlooked when handing out his green accolades to the city. The local newspaper, the Gotham Gazette wrote: "Approximately 40 percent of South Bronx residents currently live at or below the poverty level. Not coincidentally, the neighborhood houses 15 waste-transfer stations and four power plants, and 60,000 trucks travel through it each week."

Sustainable South Bronx is working to clean up and green the neighborhood and create jobs in the process -- a notable achievement and reminiscent of Green For All working out of Oakland, Calif., on green-jobs solutions for urban communities. Two of the most laudable environmental and social justice activists came from these organizations -- Majora Carter and Van Jones -- folks who are actually doing the work that Owen only writes that he wishes would happen.

Of course there are countless other organizations.

One of the most promising drivers of change in urban communities lately has sprung up around food issues. Prominent environmentalist Lester R. Brown, who founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, wrote: "In the United States, there is a huge unrealized potential for urban gardening. A survey indicated that Chicago has 70,000 vacant lots, and Philadelphia, 31,000. Nationwide, vacant lots in cities would total in the hundreds of thousands. The Urban Agriculture report summarizes why urban agriculture is so desirable. It has 'a regenerative effect ... when vacant lots are transformed from eyesores -- weedy, trash-ridden, dangerous gathering places -- into bountiful, beautiful and safe gardens that feed people's bodies and souls.'"

And urban gardens and farms are booming. Carl Flatow writes on Science Friday that there are "three dozen such projects in New York City." And there are other notable urban farms across the country, like The Food Project in Boston, the People's Grocery and City Slicker Farms in Oakland, Backdoor Harvest in St. Louis, Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham, Ala., Growing Power in Chicago and the Urban Farm in Phoenix.

Owen gives food only about a two-page mention in his book, mostly to take a swing at the local food movement. "The California raspberries that I purchase at my grocery store have a smaller carbon footprint than the local raspberries I picked recently at a farm just a couple of towns away, because the California raspberries crossed the country in a shipment containing tons of other produce, and therefore represent a minute expenditure of fuel per berry."

It seems his idea of sustainability can only be measured in terms of food miles, local economy be damned.

And sadly, Owen misses even his own point. He wants cities to be livable and for environmentalists to address the quality of life in urban areas, but fails to consider that locally grown food, shopping at farmers markets and participating in urban farming initiatives is exactly the kind of thing that is making that happen.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

As our country continues to grow, it will be necessary for us to change the way we think about urban and community planning, transportation, energy, water and waste. F. Kaid Benfield writes for the Solutions Journal about Owen's book:

The problem is especially critical because much of the built environment we are going to have in the United States over the next 50 years has not yet been built. With current trends, by 2030, we will have (despite the current recession) an additional 70 million new Americans, 40 million new jobs, 50 million new and replacement homes, and an astounding 78 billion square feet of new and replacement nonresidential space. How this unprecedented growth is managed and organized within our cities and across our landscape is enormously important to our environmental, social and economic welfare.

This is the underlying premise of the book, but the solutions are never adequately addressed. And worse, Benfield writes, "That Owen is so right in his basic point, which is so important, is why it is so maddening to come across the book's fallacies, which undermine his credibility."

The most telling is perhaps Owen's admissions about his own life. Although he lived in New York City for a short time, that was decades ago -- it turns out, he has spent the last 20 years in that same kind of sprawl that he seems to despise, a rural-ish town in Connecticut. His family owns several cars (three at one point), which seems odd considering the many chapters of the book he spends talking about cars as the country's great cultural downfall.

And when confronted with the conundrum of his hypocrisy he responds:

If Ann and I left Connecticut tomorrow and moved back into the Manhattan apartment we rented as newlyweds, we might hugely reduce our personal environmental footprint, but we would leave humanity's environmental footprint unchanged, because in order to move, we would have to sell our possessions to other people, who would continue to use them -- and life, on balance, would go on as before. The world would be no better off than if we had found a Manhattan family similar to ourselves and simply swapped residences, furniture, utility bills.

So, that's like saying it's OK to buy a Hummer because if you don't someone else will, so the net environmental impact is the same, right?

Throughout the book, Owen seems so intensely sold on New York's greenness because it is almost accidental -- no one has to try too hard, it just works out that way because people have to live so close together. That's great and all, but shouldn't we be trying to set the bar a little higher?

Owen even takes a jab at Portland, Ore., usually the city that tops the list for sustainability, much to the chagrin of the Portland-based Environmental Blog, which counters, "Portland is known for being eco-friendly because it is eco-friendly. We don't pose, we aren't inherently green by definition (density), we are green by choice. We like our electric cars, parks and bicycle lanes because they add to livability, something that New York doesn't have."

What's so wrong with trying to be green? With working toward sustainability? Isn't that the point?

In her Times review, Elizabeth Royte writes: "Manhattan may be able to teach the country about true sustainability, but where will those lessons assume bricks-and-mortar shape? We aren't about to tear down our suburbs and force their inhabitants into dense urban areas. Owen admits that 'how to apply that template remains a frustrating mystery.' "

But it might not be such a mystery if Owen looked outside of New York and broadened his narrow definition of sustainability. Cities do have a lot to teach us, we just have to look at more than one to get a complete picture.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.