The urban dream

David Owen is the author of a new book on the sustainability lessons of New York. In an interview with Jared Green, he argues the case for densely populated cities and says traditional environmentalists have got it wrong.

Jared Green: In your new book, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, you argue that New York City is one of the most sustainable cities in the United States because of its high population density. The environmental lessons are: live smaller, live closer and drive less. Why is this agenda central to achieving a more sustainable future?

David Owen: New York City has the smallest per-capita carbon footprint of any American community – just 7.1 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases per resident per year, compared with a national average of 24.5. The reason is population density. Shrinking the distance between people – and, especially, between people and their destinations – reduces energy use, carbon emission and waste in all categories.

The most important factor is automobile use. Cars are bad for the environment not only because they directly consume fuel and emit pollutants but because they facilitate the creation of far greater sources of energy profligacy and environmental damage in form of sprawling communities, oversized dwellings, inefficient commerce and huge networks of redundant civic infrastructure. New York City has the lowest automobile-to-resident ratio of any place in the United States. Fifty-four percent of the city’s households and 77% of Manhattan Island’s households don’t own even one car – an unimaginable deprivation almost anywhere else in the country.

New York City looks so different from so much of the rest of the country that its environmental examples aren’t easy to apply. But dense urban centres offer one of the few plausible templates for addressing some of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills, including climate change. We need to find ways to reduce the size of our living spaces, decrease the distance between ourselves and our destinations and begin to wean ourselves away from our near total dependence on automobiles.

JG: You argue that the best environmental investment a city can make should focus on how to make a city more attractive and tolerable for people to live closer together. How can cities fighting sprawl best invest in density?

DO: We must find ways to shift new residential and commercial development away from places where population growth and economic growth exacerbate critical environmental problems. For American cities, that will mean first understanding and then extending the benefits of population density and the thoughtful mixing of uses as well as acknowledging that, in a dense city, the truly important environmental issues are less likely to be things like solar panels on building roofs than they are to be old-fashioned quality-of-life concerns like education, culture, crime, street noise, bad smells, resources for the elderly and the availability of recreational facilities, all of which affect the willingness of people to live in efficient urban cores rather than packing up their children and fleeing to the suburbs.

Issues like these can be tough for traditional environmentalists to come to terms with because they don’t feel green: Where are the organic gardens and the backyard compost heaps? Planting trees along city streets, always a popular initiative, has high environmental utility but not for the reasons that people usually assume: trees are ecologically important in dense urban areas not because they provide temporary repositories for atmospheric carbon – the usual argument for planting more of them – but because their presence along sidewalks makes city dwellers more cheerful about dwelling in cities. Unfortunately, much conventional environmental activism has the opposite effect since it reinforces the view that urban life is artificial and depraved and makes city residents feel guilty about living where and how they do.

JG: Some argue that city living can add years to your life. What do you see as the most effective design tactic for creating healthy communities?

DO: City dwellers who fantasize about living in the country usually picture themselves hiking, kayaking, gathering eggs from their own chickens and engaging in other robust outdoor activities. But what you actually do when you move out of the city is move into a car because public transit is non-existent and most daily destinations are too widely separated to make walking or bicycling plausible as forms of transportation. Just about the first thing my wife and I did when we moved out of the city 25 years ago was gain 10 pounds apiece because we had gone from a place where we got around mainly by walking to a place where nearly everything we do away from our house requires a car trip.

To get people out of their cars, you have to do two things. First, you have to create enough density to make transit, walking and bicycling conceivable and, second, you have to make driving sufficiently expensive, inconvenient and unpleasant to force people to consider alternatives. You don’t get people out of their cars just by building attractive transit systems. Washington DC has a beautiful subway system, but no one with a car feels compelled to take the train because there’s always a place to park.

Anyone who has spent any time in Manhattan has had the experience of being stuck in traffic in a taxicab and watching a little old lady on the sidewalk overtake them and disappear into the distance. That’s a very green experience.

JG: At street level, you point to design professionals who are implementing “traffic calming” measures that make communities more pedestrian-friendly. In Europe, you point to the idea of “shared spaces”, which increase the ambiguity of urban road spaces and, instead of creating more accidents, actually force drivers to slow down. Please describe this concept.

DO: Shared space is a technique for controlling traffic by blurring, rather than sharply delineating, the boundaries between driving areas and walking areas; by making strategic use of traffic-impeding “street furniture,” such as plantings, benches and bicycle racks; and by eliminating traffic lights, stop signs, lane markings and other traditional controls. This sounds to many people like a formula for disaster, but the clear experience in the (mainly) European cities that have tried it has been that increasing the ambiguity of urban road spaces actually lowers car speeds, reduces accident rates and improves the lives of pedestrians: drivers proceed more warily when they aren’t completely certain what’s going on.

JG: Author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his cabin – an iconic image of man at one with nature and living self-sufficiently off the land – you argue, set the “American pattern” for a kind of “creeping residential development.” Do you think many environmentalists are anti-urban?

DO: Americans tend to think of dense cities as despoilers of the natural landscape, but urban density actually helps to preserve it. Preaching the sanctity of open spaces helps to propel development into those very spaces and the process is self-reinforcing.

Thoreau wasn’t actually much of an outdoorsman, and his cabin was closer to the centre of Concord, [Massachusetts, north-eastern United States], than to any true wilderness, but for many Americans he remains the archetype – the natural philosopher guiltlessly living off the grid, a mile from his nearest neighbour. Yet he actually set a very bad example, because anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move another mile farther along. Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them, or think they do. From an environmental point of view, dense cities are scalable; Thoreau’s cabin is not.

JG: In the suburbs, homeowners are spending more than US$40 billion (273 billion yuan) per year on 129,000 square kilometres of lawns. However, despite all this investment in residential outdoor spaces, they aren’t being used. How do you think residential landscapes should be re-developed so people re-engage with nature?

DO: The problem with almost any initiative aimed at “re-engaging people with nature” is that it tends to encourage the very kind of sprawling, wasteful residential development that threatens unspoiled areas in the first place. The way to protect natural landscapes is to concentrate human development, not to spread it out so that each of us can claim a small piece of it as our very own.

Environmentalists and urban planners sometimes say that, in order to get people out of their cars and onto their feet, developed areas need become more like the country by incorporating extended “greenways” and other attractive, vegetated pedestrian corridors. It’s true that such features, along with parks and natural areas, can encourage some people to take walks. But, if the goal is to get people to embrace walking as a form of practical transportation, oversized greenways can actually be counterproductive. Walking-as-transportation requires closely paced, accessible destinations, not broad expanses of leafy scenery. If you want to see people moving around under their own power under the sky, don’t go to the country or the suburbs; go downtown.

Jared Green is web content and strategy manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects.

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a dozen books.

This interview was first published by the American Society of Landscape Architects. It is reproduced here with permission.

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