spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

September 12, 2009

<< Media Physics with Prof. Hova |

How Green Is My Metropolis, The Book

David Owen has a new book, titled Green Metropolis, that will be released next week. His 2004 New Yorker essay “Green Manhattan” [PDF] is a classic. The book looks like an extended treatment of the same idea.

Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares, as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan— the most densely populated place in North America —rank first in public-transit use and last in percapita greenhouse-gas production, and they consume gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. They are also among the only people in the United States for whom walking is still an important means of daily transportation.

These achievements are not accidents. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel green, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address. Owen contends that the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the pristine countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with.

Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:55 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Cities


So, I admit I have read neither the book nor the article (either or neither nor right?), but I do see a pattern in this kind of analysis: While individual consumption is less, what about the cost of infrastructure? The construction of NYC is non-trival but also difficult to measure. What about maintenance? How much energy is used to bring resources like food and water into the city and how much is used to move waste out? While this may still be less than the average suburban dweller, they should not be ignored. There are hidden costs, such as the water pumps that are on 24/7 to keep the subway from flooding, that are invisible to metrics that only focus on an individual's impact upon the system. For a beautiful investigation of these kinds of infrastructures I highly recommend Bruno Latour's Paris: Invisible City (read the PDF, the flash is too 1996).

As I understand it, this measurement does account for all of these invisible infrastructures, averaging them over the number of people they serve -- and massive as they might be, including all the energy to move food and waste about, they are dramatically lower on a per-person basis. Manhattan's population is about 1.6 million; compare that to the state of Idaho at 1.5 million. Which takes more energy: moving food and waste in and out of Manhattan, or moving it around Idaho? Our energy consumption is much more apparent when we live in high-density places, but it's also much lower.

Thanks for the recommendation of Latour's Paris: Invisible City -- I hadn't heard of it before, and it's lovely.

Posted by: Matt Penniman on September 12, 2009 at 08:32 PM

I am glad to hear they incorporated infrastructure, I am knee jerking b/c it is so often neglected. I totally agree that dense living yields significantly less energy consumption, that is a no brainer. I remember visiting south western Germany a few years ago, the geographic distribution of people was densely populated urban space surrounded by green rural space. Even a small town, of only ~1000 had a population density approaching any of the older cities in the US. The really tough question, which Owen hits, is how to restructure the US's habits and habitat? We *know* what needs to be done, but we don't know *how*. American's love their lawns...

spacer image
spacer image