thoughts on our urban future

Book Review – Green Metropolis

Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability by David Owen

David Owen’s 2009 book “Green Metropolis” (a large portion of which is available for free via Google Books) is an interesting examination of the premise that urban living is more sustainable than other built-form typologies.  To make this argument, Owen uses New York City (or really, Manhattan) as his primary case study, where he lived for 7 years from 1978-85.

The book is not written for the professional audience which provides both benefits and drawbacks.  On the positive side, Owen’s personal and informal tone make it easy to read.  Although it’s not an academic text, there are a substantial number of references that can be used to track down original sources for further investigation.  On the negative side, sometimes there are clear personal opinions with no references cited which makes it harder to substantiate Owen’s claims.  However, having read and enjoyed the book, my gut feeling is that as long as it is read with a pinch of salt, it provides a lot of useful and interesting material to consider.

After substantial discussion of the background to cultural views of urbanism and sustainability, Owen summarizes the three most important lessons of why cities are more sustainable as ‘live smaller’, ‘live closer’, and ‘drive less’.  This is I believe in part because he also recognizes that using New York as a case study, or in fact any major global city as a case study can be troubling because in many ways each megalopolis can be seen as unique and not comparable to other places, unless it is distilled to basic concepts.

After the introduction, the book delves deeply into the issues surrounding fossil fuels with a particular focus in individual transportation but also on things like the prevalence of plastics.  Owen begins in this section to suggest that we should be re-thinking personal automobile transportation as a ‘human right’ and that even more efficient vehicles does not begin to come close to solving the inherent problems.  He suggests that the contribution of cars to the environmental crisis is not just about the energy they use themselves, but rather even more about the energy used in the inefficient lifestyle they enable.  But Owen is not unrealistic about the desires of urban dwellers.  He rightly points out that it is not because New Yorkers are more enlightened that they take more public transportation, but rather that to own and drive a car in the city is particularly unpleasant.  He goes on to debate the overall effects of HOV lanes, congestion charges, traffic calming, and the rise of small city cars and electric vehicles.  Some of his conclusions are not what you might expect.  For example, in discussing the new trend towards small city cars, he discusses how developing a smaller car that will be popular in cities is likely to have the resultant effect that significantly more people will therefore own cars, going somewhat against the environmental benefits of the smaller car.

Owen has some interesting things to say about walking and the perception of distance, using his own experiences as an example.  He discusses a 4/10 mile journey walked along a New York street and how that compares to the same distance walked in a suburban or semi-rural environment.  He concludes that without something to look at, the same distance walk can feel long and boring.  He also suggests that this is contrary to a view held by many environmentalists who suggest that non-natural landscapes discourage people from going outside.  Although I personally question this as a prevalent view of environmentalists.  They may say that a city has worse air quality or may be less safe, but I have not heard this particular argument being attempted in my presence, but then, I tend to hang around a lot of people who love cities.

Amusingly Owen describes the trend for those who move to the suburbs to ‘have their own patch of ground’ seem to dislike being outside, or letting their children outside.  Of course this is a gross generalization of a particular segment of the suburban population, but there is some fundamental truth within it that most people can relate to.  He tells a story of a man on a plane who offered his fellow passenger a dollar for every and any swimmer they could spot in any of the hundreds of backyard pools on the approach to LAX- there was no money exchanged that day, and the man said he’s made the same offer on any number of planes but has never had to pay.  While I’m not entirely convinced that the trend to spend more time indoors is particular to the suburbs, it does seem more problematic when coupled with some of the rationale behind suburban living, and Owen goes on to investigate this area in more detail.

Owen falls a bit short in his discussion of embodied energy, but this is a minor detail in his chapter dedicated to embodied efficiency.  He does a very good job of explaining the environmental benefits of density and proximity and the misleading qualities of ‘green’ corporate campuses.  Generally he makes the argument that no matter how green the isolated corporate campus, the need for employees to drive to the campus, as well as how they may socialize together (again stressing the inherent dependency on personal transportation) negates any positive effect to the green building.

Owen then has a substantial go at the LEED building rating system.  Although there are very good points to his arguments, I found they were substantially one-sided.  I think most practitioners are well aware of the limitations of most environmental building rating systems, but equally, and what Owen does not go on to discuss, is that the industry is desperate for a way to try and measure and compare advancements in building technologies.  I would have appreciated this bit of writing more if he had been offering up potential solutions as opposed to merely picking apart what is, at least to the practitioner, somewhat obvious.

This is followed by another patchy argument against home photovoltaic installation.  Again, Owen makes some very good points but I don’t think he explores the issue enough.  I believe what he ultimately is trying to discuss is centralized vs decentralized energy provision.  While this is a worthy topic of exploration, he doesn’t exactly get that far and instead focuses on home PV specifically.

There is an equally dissatisfying brief discussion of the role of windows in building efficiency.  I don’t at all agree with his conclusion that people have been led to believe that a good way to make a house greener or to appear green is to use more glass.  Again, this may be a reflection of the fact that I operate within the building industry but I don’t think anyone thinks that glass is green, and pretty much everyone is aware that windows are a tremendous problem.  However, I do in part agree with Owen that the focus on high-priced, high-tech windows reinforces the perception that reducing residential energy consumption is a luxury upgrade.  But I disagree with Owen minimizing the significance of the window and it’s impact on building heat loss, in particular in existing buildings, and in particular to that, in existing urban buildings.  While the insulation factor of windows is and always will be far less than the walls in which they sit, it is not insignificant to the overall performance of the building, and in fact, as the weakest point, could be argued to be even more important.

Looking to the future, Owen has an interesting section about his personal experiences in China and how he perceived their rapid urbanization and some of their inherent cultural differences.  He rightly suggests I think, that an automobile dependent society is vastly easier to create than to uncreate, and that the developing nations should really take advantage of the westernized world’s experience in this arena, and avoid making the same mistakes.  He continues looking at the developing world by also sharing his personal observations in Dubai.  This book was published before there was much publicity about Masdar.  I would be very curious to hear what Owen thinks about this particular development as current media publicity itself can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s a development in the right direction, or just another type of desert development destined to fail.

Owen briefly touches upon food supply and food miles.  Again, I feel he doesn’t really do this section justice and his comments seem more flippant than well researched.  In particular when discussing local produce in relation to cities, he falls into considering how he himself drives in his car to the farm to ‘pick it himself’ and then makes the leap that this is less efficient than a truck delivering all the produce to one place.  But when considering cities and farmers markets, I think there is great benefit to supporting local food economies, and his argument about energy used for transportation doesn’t hold true if it’s the farmer bringing all his produce into his local city to be sold.  I also disagree that it’s foolish for city dwellers to grow their own crops seeing as many city dwellers grow all sorts of plants and flowers.  Why shouldn’t they grow something productive for themselves?  I’m not sure why Owen comes down so hard on this topic but it was one of the few areas where I strongly disagreed with him.

Having made all of these arguments about the environmental benefits of urban living, Owen weakly tries to explain why he and his wife have not then, moved back to the city.  He suggests that although moving back would obviously reduce their personal carbon footprint, he creates the excuse that the home they live in now would still exist, and they would probably offload their overstock of belongings to other people who would still use them so in the end it wouldn’t actually make a carbon difference at all.  This is by far the weakest argument in the book, but one that I cannot get too upset about.  Owen has written a very good piece of work, but that doesn’t mean that he’s willing to give up his own creature comforts and perhaps this should be the focus of his next investigation into the topic, rather than trying to make excuses.  I also don’t believe that just because Owen hasn’t moved back to the city that it in any way invalidates his well justified arguments, it just goes to show that it really is harder than just ‘proving facts’ to bring about cultural and societal change.

If you haven’t read the book, I do recommend it.  Like I say, it’s a relatively easy read in a familiar tone, but with enough supporting information to keep the academics among you interested.  And if you have read the book, I’d be very interested in hearing what other people thought of it.

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