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Noah Toly

The Big Green Apple

New York as a model for sustainability.

In an age of unprecedented urban settlement, we think of cities as the epicenters of global environmental ruin. Yet in Green Metropolis, David Owen proposes that cities offer our best hope for making the world greener. For the first time in history, over 50 percent of the world's population dwells in urban areas. If we want to make our increasingly urban world a greener one, we don't have the luxury of starting from scratch. Indeed, to do so would mean ecologically disastrous waste. Treading more softly requires that we find ways to green the cities we already live in. Urgently needed is a model ecotopia, and Owen claims that our model should be … New York City.

The Big Green Apple fits the "surprise" trope that Owen employs throughout the book. It's a great way to grab our attention, but Owen wears it thin. The sloganeering he cites as evidence for environmentalist antipathy toward the city—"My other car is a pair of hiking boots"—represents posturing rather than considered judgment. The disposition of environmentally sensitive scholars and activists toward the city has been much more nuanced and ambivalent, as Owen himself grudgingly concedes: "I spoke with one energy expert who, when I asked him to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the United States, said, 'It's not a secret …. It's because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars." Experts such as the one Owen consulted have been talking about the green metropolis for at least the past 25 years. Nevertheless, Owen has performed a great service by making this conversation accessible to a wider public.

"The environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world's nonrenewable resources," Owen declares at the outset, "is not how to make our teeming cities more like the countryside. The problem we face is how to make our teeming cities more like Manhattan, whose residents currently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with." That's the theme he hammers home relentlessly: "In a world of nearly 7 billion people and counting, sustainability, if it can be achieved, will look a lot more like midtown Manhattan than like rural Vermont."

The secret to Manhattan's success is simple: "Live smaller," "live closer," and "drive less." Smaller residential footprints, denser settlement, fewer cars per person, and less driving, overall, have made unwitting eco-warriors of hipsters and bankers alike. From Soho to Central Park, Manhattanites are already hard at work meeting the world's environmental challenges.

So where does Owen locate the heart of environmental darkness? In the inefficiencies associated with suburban consumption patterns. Here he's merely echoing a crescendo of voices lamenting the ills of excessive consumption. When it comes to global environmental challenges, the real offenders are not the teeming masses of the world's burgeoning cities, but multi-SUV families in nested McMansions a 20-minute drive from the nearest grocery store. Just as the average inhabitant of the United States consumes more and generates a much larger environmental footprint than the average inhabitant of China, the average resident of Westchester, a suburb of New York City, consumes more and generates a much larger environmental footprint than the average resident of Manhattan. Living bigger, living farther apart, and driving more are the problems we must solve. Such an approach to measuring environmental impact ensures that neither China nor Manhattan is made into an eco-villain on account of population or wealth alone.

For all of its economic growth and increasing prosperity, China's environmental impact remains low precisely because so many either languish in poverty or willingly cultivate an agricultural lifestyle. But social mobility and urbanization go hand-in-hand in China, and China's cities rank among the most ecologically disastrous in the world. If the status quo is maintained, the more Chinese cities grow, the greater will be their negative impact—measurable not only locally but also globally. In 2008, researchers detected the "fingerprint" of Shanghai's manufacturing district in the polluted haze that drifts over the Pacific to the west coast of the United States. China must find a model for urban development that is both locally attractive and globally sustainable. And it is precisely for this reason, Owen suggests, that New York is the exemplar. The promise of New York is to enjoy typically northern patterns of production, distribution, and consumption while treading softly upon the earth. If New Yorkers get to have their cake and eat it too, maybe one day Beijingers can do the same.

Global demographic shifts dictate that Owen should devote the bulk of his attention to urban sustainability. Still, many readers will be wondering about those benighted suburbs. (They might even live there, with or without SUVs.) As Owen points out, since World War II, the American dream has looked more like Westchester and less like Manhattan. Consequently, there is an enormous sunk cost in suburban development. If—following the logic of Owen's argument—we must green the places we already live, then we must also green the suburbs. But does the promise of New York City have anything to teach us about the perils of suburbia?

Or, to bring the question closer to home, if New York is ecotopia, why does Owen himself live in suburban Connecticut? Well, he explains, someone will occupy suburban houses like his. Better that these tree-shaded retreats should be occupied by people who can work from the comfort of home, as he and his wife do. People who simply must commute to work should not use cars. They should live in the city and take the subway, bike, or walk. Furthermore, occupying an existing suburban home—living within an existing "envelope"—decreases the demand for and construction of new suburban homes. This non-proliferation strategy prevents McMansions of mass destruction from falling into the hands of dangerous people whose commutes to New York City and other such places would wreak havoc on both local and global environments.

How very bourgeois. Those with the flexibility to work from home, for whom the city is a nice place to visit, ought to inhabit the manicured landscapes of the suburbs. Those who must report to the office or factory for work should inhabit the city. At this point, Green Metropolis begins to resemble Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the 1927 German Expressionist film, in which the privileged live above or beyond the urban fray, enjoying lush green gardens, while masses of workers live smaller and closer together, taking cattle-car elevators into the depths of the city.

To Owen's credit, he acknowledges that urban life must be made more attractive in order to entice those who could choose otherwise to move to the city. But what about people of lesser means? Owen largely misses the people for the place, treating New York as if everything inside the city were uniform. In a dismissal of what he considers misguided environmentalist impulses, Owen rejects distributed, small-scale electricity production. "To want to produce your own electricity," he asserts, "is like wanting [to drive] your own car." It is simply more efficient to produce a lot of electricity in one place and then to distribute it than it is to have distributed production. The social dimensions of the sustainable city escape Owen, who clearly isn't thinking about people who must live close to coal-fired power plants. Sure, it's more efficient to produce a lot of electricity at one site, in one neighborhood. Those who don't live near the power plant get cheap electricity; those who do live near the power plant get asthma.

Even in the most sustainable cities, environmental quality is inequitably distributed. Minorities and the poor face the greatest public health risks associated with industrial and post-industrial patterns of production, distribution, and consumption. Many marginalized communities cannot find support for the development of parks, gardens, or other green spaces. "Where," they might rightly ask, "is this green metropolis?"

Just as Owen seems insensitive to the inequitable fates of people in the city, he sometimes seems insensitive to disparities between cities. Owen's rejection of urban agriculture as inefficient land use is one example. In Manhattan and other booming urban areas, it might be inefficient to convert desirable residential and commercial landscapes into towering vertical farms. But such a conversion might be much more efficient in bombed-out cities like Detroit. In this instance and others, Owen overstates the paradigmatic status of New York City.

The limits of New York's paradigmatic status are even more apparent when we turn to the cities of the Global South, many of which represent novel urban forms: the mega-city, for example (a city of over ten million people), or the mega-slum (home to more than one million people). These cities are expected to absorb the entire net population growth of the world over the next 25 years. It is largely in and through them that our global environmental fortunes will be decided. As Owen attests, the Hutong—a type of older neighborhood in Beijing in which residents live even smaller and even closer together, driving even less than their counterparts in Manhattan—may be a model for the type of development we need to see in the Global South.

Indeed, with many environmental scholars and activists saying that the New York City lifestyle remains unsustainable on a global scale, this might well be the kind of green neighborhood to which more of us should aspire right here in the United States. When Gandhi said, "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed," did he really mean we should all do as Manhattanites do?

Noah Toly is director of urban studies and assistant professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College.

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