Audiobook Orgy Part 2: Green Metropolis

usa-001What is the most sustainable place in the United States? Boulder, Colorado? Davis, California? New York, New York? David Owen, New Yorker writer and master of counterintuitive arguments advocates for the latter. Per capita energy use in New York City is 13% lower than the American average – low enough that if spread across the entire country we would instantly surpass the Kyoto Protocol benchmarks.

How can this be? New York is a teeming mass of bright lights, elevators, hard surfaces, and subways. All true. But what it doesn’t have – at least in proportionate numbers – are cars. And no matter how many solar collectors we mount on our roofs, how many incandescent bulbs we replace with fluorescent, or how many inches of insulation we put in our attics, if we drive to and from our homes, our lives will never be sustainable. The amount of fossil fuel it takes to support a car-centric environment surpasses whatever efficiency of its destination structure may possess.

Sustainability is bimgres-5uilt into the fabric of New York. People are so dense it makes more sense to walk or take the subway than to drive; dwelling units are smaller so people have less stuff, and they’re stacked, therefore easier to heat and cool. This portrait of sustainability is anathema to our American penchant for tackling a problem by augmentation (i.e. buying stuff) rather than simplification. There are no sacred cows in Mr. Owen’s enviro-sphere: self-satisfied Prius drivers, showcase homeowners heating 7,000 square feet mansions by geothermal, and even prickly locovore’s come under his hair trigger. He demonstrates how there’s less embodied energy in lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to England than lamb raised in England for local consumption since the energy required to pasture feed sheep in England (high latitude, less sun) far outstrips the energy plus transit costs of serving New Zealand lamb in London.

images-2Green Metropolis is a survey course of my graduate education. I doubt the merits of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities ever shared the same book jacket with U-value analyses of glass construction. I must admit to enjoying the pot shots he takes at traditional zoning, which actually prohibit synergistic living; and the Green Building Council’s LEED program, which raised public consciousness for energy efficiency by turning sustainability into a cafeteria menu of add-ons that require extensive (and expensive) professional technical expertise.

imgres-6A few of his targets made me winch. I can accept his logic that Central Park is too big, that it creates a giant barrier from East Side to West Side and that few people use its interior areas. But I am so accustomed to thinking of Central Park as the psychic counter-soul of New York; I can’t imagine tinkering with it.

 

Similarly, I find it difficult to believe that his rationale for living in Northeast Connecticut rather than in Manhattan (that his house is old and someone will be living there) ever made it past his editors. Truth is, he lives there because he can afford to and he seeks the same low-density living as most Americans. More useful than his lame explanation would have been insight into what might induce an affluent, educated, middle-aged white American male like himself to relocate to a denser locale.

Some arguments in Green Metropolis are stretched to the extreme. It seems right to argue that we should not build more roads and highways as a step toward reigning in development and increasing density, but I don’t see the point of arguing against making existing roads more efficient. Mr. Owen is realistic in assessing that, given the option, people will drive and they will sprawl. He harps on making driving less attractive, but doesn’t champion thimgres-2e counter argument: how can we make alternative forms of transport more attractive. A sustainable life must be different than our current model, since it needs to be car-independent, but I don’t believe it has to be meager. In fact, I believe it can be richer. Density needs to be touted as a desirable trait that offers convenience, variety, sociability and solitude, rather than as a punishment.

Green Metropolis convinced me that we will never achieve anything like a sustainable environment with our current ‘accessorized’ approach, and that radical urbanization is required. As such, the book starts an important discussion. Mr. Owen should write a compendium that puts forth concrete suggestions toward that end, but I doubt he will. There’s no pizzazz in that effort. No one else is likely to write that book either, since no vested interest group stands to gain from a simplified, coordinated approach to sustainability. The best line of the book, attributed to Thomas Freidman, is, “If it’s not boring, it’s not green.” So true. So unprofitable.

However, since I am beholden to no one, here are a few talking points – from the expedient to the futuristic – that can move us in a sustainable direction.

imgres-4Zoning. Mix up land use and make it dense.

 

 

Cap and Tradimages-1e – Everything.

– Land Use. Set the sweet spot at eight units per acre, where public transportation becomes efficient and effective. Tax less dense development; incentivize more dense development.

– Automobiles. Tax gasoline to fund improved public transit.

– Air Travel. Tax air trips to improve rail travel.

imagesImprove ‘virtual’ interactions. If people really love living far apart, let them interact from that distance so they can stay put in the exurbs.

imgres-3Make James Bond a Reality – Seriously, can’t we develop jet packs that are safe and efficient? 98% of the fuel used to move an SUV is used to move the SUV, only 2% to move the person inside. Let’s shed the SUV.

Think about these, pass them on, dispute them, and add to them. Let’s start a discussion.

 

 

 

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About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, theawkwardpose.com is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog, www.howwillwelivetomorrw.com, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to Audiobook Orgy Part 2: Green Metropolis

  1. Justine says:

    Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily basis.
    It’s always exciting to read content from other writers and use a little something from other sites.

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