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October 25, 2004

<< Making the Big Move | Different Realities >>


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?

Posted October 25, 2004 at 9:15 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


It might be more to the point to ask (as Owen does) why environmentalists particularly don't respect cities more -- and why they comfort themselves with imaginary solutions instead. (Disclosure: those close to me know my longtime and slightly irrational distrust of recycling programs.)

Almost everyone willing to admit it has known for some time that suburbs and exurbs are as terrible for the environment as they are for the soul. Besides the ubiquitous gas-guzzling vehicles (not just SUVs but RVs, boats, and even ordinary cars stressed by long commutes), their need for new roadways, waterworks, and other public services strains the existing infrastructure, as often as not provided gratis by the cities suburban emigres so often disparage. Suburbs are the children of the 1950s' fear, affluence, and ignorance, and share all of that decade's virtues and vices.

The truly radical part of Owen's article isn't that suburbs are bad, but that cities can be good -- and that other alternatives are nowhere in sight.

Cities induce a visceral, negative response in many people, including many people who are active in environmental lobbying and countless more who are understandaby (and perhaps inevitably) more sensitive to the concrete imagery associated with the loss of wildlife species and uncultured green space than they are to less tangible gains like BTUs/unit.

The problem -- well, one of many problems -- is that it's impossible to turn back the clock. We'll always consume more energy than we produce, we can't live in happy autonomous communes in the age of the automobile, the generator, and fiberoptic cables. But perhaps it's possible for cities to reclaim some of their utopian promise: after all, it's the only chance we've got.

I remember in SimCity 2000, the ultimate phase of urban development was the arcology. They were these huge self-contained, super-high-density communities.

(The really hot ones doubled as space-colonizing rocket ships, BTW.)

You always hear about the world becoming increasingly urban, but I wonder if "urban" in this context really means the kind of high-density NYC-style living we're talking about here or something that more closely approximates the inner-ring 'burbs or whatever.

Are we going to end up with a world of super-dense megalopolises -- each sucking more and more humanity into its borders with force almost gravitational -- or a world of sprawly low-slung streets?

I fear the latter. And I fear the scummy suburbs of China and India will make ours today look like hyper-efficient eco-edens.

Posted by: Robin on October 26, 2004 at 11:58 PM

*two cents* -- definitely no Renaissance happening in the San An. Ever.

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