October 25, 2004
I’ll join the chorus of handwringing on the Internet for the lack of an online version of David Owen’s article in last week’s New Yorker. I could write about it, but Tim’s already done that quite well enough for the both of us. So I’ll go the crowd one better, and reproduce a few paragraphs for your pleasure and edification:
Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.
“Anyplace that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an environmental disaster — ecxept that it isn’t,” John Holtzclaw, a transportation consultant for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “If New Yorkers lived at the typical American sprawl density of three households per residential acre, they would require many times as much land. They’d be driving cars, and they’d have huge lawns and be using pesticides and fertilizers on them, and then they’d be overwatering their lawns, so that runoff would go into streams.” The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan’s population density is more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into.
Sure, New York can be a dingy, cramped-up little asthmatic space, but honestly, could a Renaissance ever happen in San Antonio? Why don’t we respect our cities more?