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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 ...

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