The greenest cities are the most compact cities, says David Owen in his recent book Green Metropolis, pointing to New York City’s urban form as a model for sustainability.
For the most part, Owen is right on and the book is a good read. Citing high transit use, walkability and tightly packed buildings, he notes that “the average New Yorker annually generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases, a lower rate than that of residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average, which is 24.5 metric tons.”
While the author has many strong arguments that will help change people’s view of dense cities, sometimes his thinking contradicts what actually is happening. First is the inference that New York is so compact, that biking is a common occurrence. The fact is that New York City ranks 32nd among U.S. big cities in bike commuting, and density alone does not guarantee high biking rates. Only under recent leadership has the city built substantial bike facilities, which requires taking away car space. Yet Owen disparages Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to institute a congestion charge, even though it would have provided additional funding and roadway for bicycle and bus lanes. And he oddly objects to the city’s “Summer Streets” program, which banned cars from about seven miles of streets for three Saturdays in August, saying initiatives like this “treat pedestrians and bicyclists the way Robert Moses used to treat cars, by segregating them on expressways of their own.” What’s the problem with that?
The book also seems to veer off a bit when Owen infers that Central Park and Prospect Park are too big. While concerns about safety need attention, in most people’s view it’s wrong to say that these parks should not exist as they do. Meandering within the parks’ natural settings and enjoying the hundreds of things to do there is a joy to many who live in the city. In fact, Manhattan is still as densely populated and energy-saving as it is even with Central Park. Without it, probably more people would prefer leaving for sparsely populated New England hamlets as Owen did. A better point would be that the number of large parks should be limited and that they are more successful with packed housing around their perimeters — something exhibited by Central Park in any aerial picture.
But Owen nails it when he says that in built out cities, what is really needed to entice density are smaller parks within walking distance of residents. He has some wonderful points about the value of places such as Washington Square Park and how recreational space should be “distributed around the city” and placed “toward outer edges,” such as waterfronts.
In this lies the key to environmental sustainability: livable compactness. And on that is one of the most important points of the book, that “environmentalists tend to focus on defending places where people aren’t rather than on intelligently organizing the places where people are.” This means thinking just as much about creating pleasurable and compact cities for families as much or more about protecting land on the urban fringe. Because by doing so, curbing sprawl and reducing energy use is exactly what can be achieved.