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Green Metropolis: Cities as Environmental Solutions

Bob Van Meter

Bob Van Meter, Boston LISC

David Owen, a staff  writer for The New Yorker, has written a provocative new book called Green Metropolis which argues that if America is to reduce its carbon footprint then we must become in Owen's words "more like Manhattan." 

While this argument is not news to those involved in efforts to encourage smart growth, Owen, a very good writer, has a different perspective than most advocates of smart growth.  For instance, he spends some time discussing the disjunction between what the American environmental movement's historic anti-urban bias and the fact that the single greatest environmental challenge facing us could be solved by more of us living in cities.  

He discusses how this anti-urban bias has its roots in the writings of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and could even be said to date to Thomas Jefferson's idealization of rural life.  Owen describes this long held distaste for cities and says that the Sierra Club's case for smart growth to its members carefully stays away his own direct statement that we should all live "more like Manhattan."

Owen correctly identifies community safety and education issues as core environmental issues if we are to make urban living more desirable. He does not wrestle with the question that many of us are dealing with - how can you build vibrant transit-oriented neighborhoods that are not completely gentrified?

A key part of Owen's argument is that if we are to solve the problem of carbon emissions, we can't rely on moral virtue. The reason that Western European countries have lower carbon footprints than the U.S. is not because they are more virtuous but because they live in denser cities where they are closer to jobs and have good public transportation – hence they own fewer cars and drive less. 

Owen argues that increasing the energy efficiency of cars is in some sense counter-productive since it lowers the cost of driving, and in his view, we should increase the cost of driving, thereby encouraging more people to live in ways that don't require driving. He also makes an iconoclastic argument against the current emphasis on "food miles" as an argument for local food as part of the solution to carbon emissions. Owen argues that "food miles" are an imperfect and probably wrong way to look at the carbon impact of getting food on the table. He puts the glorification of local food in the same category as  "installing solar panels on a suburban McMansion," resulting in one thinking that he has done his part to stop global warming. All in all, it is a thought-provoking and fun book which makes a powerful case for encouraging urban growth and discouraging sprawl. 

Bob Van Meter is executive director of Boston LISC.

Keywords: cities, density, education, New York City, safety, transit

Posted in Thinking Out Loud

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