Sunday, December 6, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part I

David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, suggests that the best American model for urban environmentalism is New York City. “Green” living, argues Owen, is not best served by open space, solar panels, or hybrid cars, but is instead achieved through dense urban living. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I, for the most part, agree with. The book is worth reading in its entirety, but in the interest of being able to pick out specific topics to highlight for discussion I’ll post individual entries about each chapter (starting now, with chapter one). While some of the issues are more relevant when discussing larger city or regional planning, much of Owen’s ideas are directly relevant to debates over Uptown and its future. Many Uptowners like to consider themselves environmentalists, and as such, should give Green Metropolis and its argument careful consideration.

Owen’s argument can be summed up as follows:

Live Smaller. Americans live large. Big houses and their trappings are wasteful. New Yorkers live in smaller homes, and use a lot less energy than the average American.

Live Closer. New Yorkers often live close to where they live, work, shop, and play; Americans in general need to embrace this if we are going to make significant positive progress on environmental issues. High density mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods can and should be discussed as an environmentally-friendly housing and planning option.

Drive Less. “Miles matter than miles per gallon.” Owen spends a lot of time on this point. Driving is driving, and from an environmental standpoint focusing on fuel efficiency or form of power isn’t addressing the other major environmental problems contributed to or created by cars, including the many issues relating to sprawl.

In short, high-density urban living is ideal from an environmental standpoint. More people living in dense urban neighborhoods means less sprawl and an overall reduced environmental footprint. It means less driving. Environmentalists need to stop considering getting “back” to nature as the environmental ideal, and start looking at cities as the model for a truly green future.

So how does Uptown fit into all of this? While I don’t doubt the environmental good intentions of some of my fellow Uptown supporters, anyone who has followed local neighborhood issues knows that there’s a great deal of lip service paid to “green” issues like open space, trees, native grasses, organics recycling, and parks. I certainly approve of some of these issues, but I agree with Owen that they cloud the bigger environmental issue. Given the vocal nature of some of the anti-density but self-proclaimed eco-minded crowd, such as former City Planning Commissioner Lara Norkus-Crampton, it’s time that we start to discuss issues like density as an environmental framework. Green living is not just about seeing eagles on the lake or looking at the sky. Adding density doesn’t have to give up livability or “character” or look like Manhattan.

I do appreciate Uptown’s character, meaning its blend of uses, its historic architecture (commercial, industrial, residential, and civic), and its tree-lined streets (less so following years of Dutch Elm disease, unfortunately). I don’t want to see the area’s homes all destroyed and replaced by high-rise apartments. But, despite the “sky is falling” opponents who would suggest otherwise, high density (and yes, high buildings) can and should be integrated into the greater Uptown area. The feeling of the neighborhood may change in parts, but it’s unrealistic to think that Uptown’s “character” will always remain the same. The area has changed dramatically over the years, and despite even the most stringent zoning and area plans will continue to do so, like it or not. We might as well embrace change, encourage it in appropriate areas, and allow Uptown to become, if demand allows, a truly urban neighborhood. While I believe increased density to lead to more livable communities, it’s also the environmentally-correct thing to do. How can we in good conscience call ourselves environmentalists yet not advocate for increased density in Uptown and in the city?

Or, to put it bluntly, why can’t more people (ahem, certain local board members and former planning commissioners) understand that density, including mid-rise buildings on busy streets, has positive environmental implications? (or, conversely, that lack of density can have a negative impact?)

I, for one, find Green Metropolis to be energizing. I’m going to do my part to take back the urban environmental message. “Green” should not just mean support of parks, bike trails, solar panels, composting, or other such endeavors (however worthy); it should also mean something substantial. If someone wants to wear the mantle of “environmentalist” yet oppose projects such as the proposed Mozaic (the controversial proposed mixed-use building behind the Lagoon Theater), for example, then they need to be able to fully explain their reasoning. Everything has its positives and negatives and not all neighborhood goals are compatible, but it’s our responsibility to at least be aware of the implications of our decisions.

What do you think? Can Uptown handle more density? Should Uptown become more dense? Where does increasing urban density fall in Uptown’s list of priorities, environmental or others?
David Owen. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Up next: Chapter Two, "Liquid Civilization," or "Driving is Driving."


  1. You've touched on something that has always been interesting to me - that we can all be chasing the goal of "sustainability", but have drastically different ideas of how to get there. In the game of sustainability, there are tradeoffs & competing objectives. For example, the goal of increased density faces off directly with the goal of reducing stormwater runoff. There are some innovative things we can do to try to achieve both, but for the most part, we end up having to prefer one over the other - especially at an individual parcel level. I've also worked on projects where homeowners have opposed the construction of sidewalks in front of their homes in the name of sustainability ("You're creating a sea of pavement")

  2. Reuben-

    Increasing density doesnt have to conflict with reducing stormwater runoff. If you build a 5 story apartment on a surface parking lot there is theoretically no increase in stormwater runoff. Add a green roof or some pods for trees in the front of the building and you could actually reduce runoff.

    Taking a larger perspective, redeveloping inner city single-family homes (and their yards) to apartment buildings might increase runoff at the project site level, but the same would have occured if the added population was instead housed in new buildings constructed on greenfield sites on the urban fringe. Both increase runoff, but the increased urban density will have other environmental benefits to compensate, which the suburban/exurban development would not.