Cities: Is the 'dirty city' an urban legend?

An excerpt from New Yorker staff writer David Owen's new book, Green Metropolis.

Asked to imagine a greem , energy-efficient community, most people would probably conjure a little town in the countryside, or some experimental enclave with green roofs and geothermal energy wells in Denmark. In his controversial new book, Green Metropolis, New Yorker staff writer David Owen argues that, contrary to popular belief, one of the greenest localities in our midst is none other than New York City, in all of its densely-packed , nature-stripped, traffic-clogged splendour. The future of green, Owen believes, in both environmental and economic terms, lies in fostering the growth of teeming metropolitan cities, in which residents ? citizens and companies ? by necessity consume less gas, oil and electricity, and produce less waste on a per capita basis than those existing in outlying areas. In the following excerpt, Owen explains why one of the greatest economic and environmental challenges we face is not how to make big cities more like the pastoral settings we imagine, but how to make suburbs and outlying areas as efficient as the concrete jungle.

The history of civilization is a chronicle of destruction: People arrive, eat anything slow enough to catch, supplant indigenous flora with species bred for exploitation, burn whatever can be burned, and move on or spread out. No sensitive modern human can contemplate that history without a shudder. Everywhere we look, we see evidence of our recklessness, as well as signs that our destructive reach is growing. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is no longer the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, 175 miles away. Tap water in metropolitan Washington, D.C., has been found to contain trace amounts of caffeine, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, two antibiotics, an anti-convulsive drug used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, and the antibacterial chemical Triclocarban, which is an ingredient of household soaps and cleaning agents. Modern interest in environmentalism is driven by a yearning to protect what we haven’t ruined already, to conserve what we haven’t used up, to restore as much as possible of what we’ve destroyed, and to devise ways of reconfiguring our lives so that civilization as we know it can be sustained through our children’s lifetimes and beyond.

To the great majority of Americans who share these concerns, densely populated cities look like the end of the world. Because such places concentrate high levels of human activity, they seem to manifest nearly every distressing symptom of the headlong growth of civilization — the smoke, the filth, the crowds, the cars — and we therefore tend think of them as environmental crisis zones. Calculated by the square foot, New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than any other American region of comparable size. On a map depicting negative environmental impacts in relation to surface area, therefore, Manhattan would look like an intense hot spot, surrounded, at varying distances, by belts of deepening green.

But this way of thinking obscures a profound environmental truth, because if you plotted the same negative impacts by resident or by household the colour scheme would be reversed. New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption. Most important, the city’s unusually high concentration of population enables the majority of residents to live without automobiles — an unthinkable deprivation almost anywhere else in the United States, other than in a few comparably dense American urban cores, such as the central parts of San Francisco and Boston. The scarcity of parking spaces in New York, along with the frozen snarl of traffic on the most travelled streets, makes car ownership an unbearable burden for most, while the compactness of development, the fertile mix of commercial and residential uses, and the availability of public transportation make automobile ownership all but unnecessary in most of the city. A pedestrian crossing Canal Street at rush hour can get the impression that New York is the home of every car ever built, but Manhattan actually has the lowest car-to-resident ratio of anyplace in America.

The apparent ecological innocuousness of widely dispersed populations — as in leafy suburbs or seemingly natural exurban areas, such as mine — is an illusion. My little town has about 4,000 residents, spread over 38.7 thickly wooded square miles (just eight fewer square miles than San Francisco), and there are many places within our town limits from which no sign of settlement is visible in any direction. But if you moved eight million people like us, along with our dwellings, possessions, vehicles and current rates of energy use, water use, and waste production, into a space the size of New York City, our profligacy would be impossible to miss, because you’d have to stack our houses and cars and garages and lawn tractors and swimming pools and septic tanks higher than skyscrapers, and you wouldn’t be able to build roads and gas stations fast enough to serve us, even if you could find places to put them. Conversely, if you made all eight million New Yorkers live at the density of my town, they would require a space equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address.

New York City is by no means the world’s only or best example of the environmental benefits of concentrating human populations. Almost any large old city in Europe — where the main population centres arose long before the automobile, and therefore evolved to be served by less environmentally disastrous means of getting around — is both denser and less wasteful than New York. The most energy-efficient and least automobile-dependent city in the world is almost certainly Hong Kong, whose overall density greatly exceeds even that of Manhattan. But New York is a useful example for Americans, both because it is familiar and because it proves that affluent people are capable of living comfortably while consuming energy and inflicting environmental damage at levels well below U.S. averages. And — as is the case with all dense cities — New York’s efficiencies are built-in and, therefore, don’t depend on a total, sudden transformation of human nature. Even for people who live in sparsely populated areas far from urban centers, dense cities like New York offer important lessons about how to permanently reduce energy use, water consumption, carbon output and many other environmental ills.

Thinking of crowded cities as environmental role models requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief, because most of us have been accustomed to viewing urban centres as ecological nightmares. New York is one of the most thoroughly altered landscapes imaginable, an almost wholly artificial environment, in which the terrain’s primeval contours have long since been obliterated and most of the parts that resemble nature (the trees on side streets, the rocks in Central Park) are essentially decorations. Quite obviously, this wasn’t always the case. When Europeans first began to settle Manhattan, in the early-17th century, a broad salt marsh lay where the East Village does today, the area now occupied by Harlem was flanked by sylvan bluffs, and Murray Hill and Lenox Hill were hills. Streams ran everywhere, and beavers built dams near what is now Times Square. One early European visitor described Manhattan as “a land excellent and agreeable, full of noble forest trees and grape vines,” and another called it a “terrestrial Canaan, where the Land floweth with milk and honey.”

But then, across a relatively brief span of decades, Manhattan’s European occupiers levelled the forests, flattened the hills, filled the valleys, buried the streams, and superimposed an unyielding, two-dimensional grid of avenues and streets, leaving virtually no hint of what had been before. The earliest outposts of metropolitan civilization, such as it was, were confined to the island’s southern tip, but in the 18th and 19th centuries settlement spread northward at an accelerating pace. In 2007, Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist who was completing a three-dimensional computer recreation of pre-European Manhattan, told Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker, “It’s hard to think of any place in the world with as heavy a footprint, in so short a time, as New York. It’s probably the fastest, biggest land-coverage swing in history.” Picturing even a small part of that long-lost world requires a heroic act of the imagination — or, as in Sanderson’s case, a vast database and complex computer-modelling software.

Given the totality of what has been erased, contemplation of New York’s evolution into a megalopolis inspires mainly a sense of loss, and ecology-minded discussions of the city tend to have a forlorn air. Nikita Khrushchev, who visited New York in the fall of 1960, found the scarcity of foliage in the city depressing, by comparison with Moscow, saying, “It is enough to make a stone sad.” In environmental triage, New York is usually consigned to the hopeless category, worthy of palliative care only. Environmentalists tend to focus on a handful of ways in which the city might be made to seem somewhat less oppressively man-made: by easing the intensity of development; by creating or enlarging open spaces around structures; by relieving traffic congestion and reducing the time that drivers spend aimlessly searching for parking spaces; by increasing the area devoted to parks, greenery and gardening; by incorporating vegetation into buildings themselves.

But such discussions miss the point, because in most cases changes like these would actually undermine the features that create the city’s extraordinary efficiency and keep the ecological impact of its residents small. Spreading buildings out enlarges the distance between local destinations, thereby limiting the utility of walking and public transportation; making automobile traffic move more efficiently enhances the allure of owning cars and, inevitably, reduces ridership on the subway. Because urban density, in itself, is such a powerful generator of environmental benefits, the most critical environmental issues in dense urban cores tend to be seemingly unrelated matters like law enforcement and public education, because anxieties about crime and school quality are among the strongest forces motivating flight to the suburbs. By comparison, popular feel-good urban eco-projects like adding solar panels to the roofs of apartment buildings are decidedly secondary. 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.

A dense urban area’s greenest features — its low per-capita energy use, its high acceptance of public transit and walking, its small carbon footprint per resident — are not inexplicable anomalies. They are the direct consequences of the very urban characteristics that are the most likely to appall a sensitive friend of the earth. Yet those qualities are ones that the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate, as the world’s various ongoing energy and environmental crises deepen and spread in the years ahead. In terms of sustainability, dense cities have far more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns.

Reprinted from Green Metropolis by David Owen by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2009 by David Owen.