Green Metropolis: If You Want to Be Green, Live in New York City (Book Review)

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A few years ago, TreeHugger used to cover every interesting new green single family home is the suburbs, every off-grid technical wonder in the desert or mountains. But there was always an underlying concern: the driving needed to get to them. David Owen of the New Yorker has much the same concern; he writes in Green Metropolis:Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability that trading a Hummer for a Prius (or even a new electric Nissan Leaf) is pointless; It's not the miles per gallon that matter, it's the miles travelled.


The energy efficiency of individual automobiles is a far less important environmental issue than the energy inefficiency of the asphalt-latticed way of life that we have built to oblige them- the sprawling American landscape of subdivisions, parking lots, strip malls and interstate bypasses. The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway; it's everything the Hummer makes possible- the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes.

The private automobile is responsible for all of this, and we all are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico and the Alberta Tar Sands the lengths that we have to go to keep the private automobile running. The real solution to getting off oil is to get out of cars; the way to do that is to live like New Yorkers.

New Yorkers use less energy and create less greenhouse gases than anyone else in America; that is because they tend to live in smaller spaces with shared walls, have less room to buy and keep stuff, often don't own cars (or if they do, use them a lot less) and walk a lot.

So do a lot of people who live in older, walkable communities designed before the automobile changed everything. Perhaps not as efficiently as New Yorkers, but a lot more efficiently than a suburbanite in Phoenix.

Owen is right about so much in this book. The only way to get people out of cars is to make driving more difficult and make alternatives more comfortable; bring on the bike lanes and take out the car lanes. But its value is almost offset by the negatives. He thinks local food is silly, bringing up the standard examples of California raspberries and New Zealand lamb, but I have still never met a locavore who is in it for the energy savings; it is about community and quality as well as carbon. He sees little point in changing lightbulbs if you still drive a car, but because he does not in fact practice what he preaches and live in New York, he is doing what he can to "apply the Manhattan template to their own lives"- work from home, drive less, turn down the thermostat, insulate his basement and attic. And if you can't or won't move to New York, that is what everyone should do- apply the Manhattan template.

Despite the contradictions, the book does deliver an important message: we need to start thinking about the big changes necessary be able to live comfortably without a private car for everyday use. Just switching to a more benign vehicle won't be enough; what the car has wrought is as bad as the car itself.

Green Metropolis in Amazon