Book review: Green Metropolis, by David Owen

So, this is a bit of a first, since I haven’t done a review before, strictly speaking.  But I’ve thought enough about this book that I figure I might as well write it all down.

The main thrust of David Owen’s Green Metropolis is a refutation of the anti-urban, back-to-the-land tendency found often in environmentalism.  While I had hoped for him to go into more detail about how this tendency evolved, he nevertheless gives an adequate summary of its roots in the Industrial Revolution (when city life was truly dreadful).  From there, he goes on, in great detail, to extol the environmental virtues of urban life- the denser, the better.  In particular, he holds up his hometown of Manhattan as a template for the sustainable habitat of the future.

While this was definitely refreshing- I have gotten tired of environmental writers who have held up the rural as a paragon of sustainability, without actually being familiar with how unsustainable it can be (I imagine most of them harbor the illusion that farms are usually totally self-sufficient- which is rarely the case, even when many of the required goods and services are produced on-site), Owen’s argument ultimately seemed far too narrow.  He was focused, almost obsessively, on automobile transport as the the cardinal environmental sin.  Anything that makes traveling by car easier- HOV lanes, hybrid cars, rideshares- is described invariably as being an environmental catastrophe.

Part of this focus also comes from Owen’s concerns about peak oil, since that will make car transport vastly more expensive.  While this is certainly true, as I’ve mentioned before, running out of fossil fuels shouldn’t be our number one priority right now.  With that said, it is very refreshing to find a peak oil writer who isn’t unabashedly anti-urban, as many of them (somewhat inexplicably) tend to be.

Owen argues that we should live as densely as possible, in essence, so as to put as much as possible in walking distance, or, if that fails, on well-designed public transportation systems (but he really prefers walking if at all possible, since that has effectively no carbon footprint).  However, I feel his intense focus on density sometimes leads him astray- he rails against solar panels, for example, as they are usually presented in terms of “rooftop solar”, powering individual, separate houses (which means that things won’t be in walking distance), and instead argues that it’s more efficient to rely on centralized power generation (which lends itself well to dense habitation).  But this ignores the fact that, all told, transportation only makes up for about 30% of emissions anyway- emissions from electricity generation is far higher.

On the other hand, this perspective does allow him to present an excellent critique of the LEED standard for buildings, as the overall sustainability of a structure needs to be taken in context of the human environment it is built in.

But, ultimately, the major flaw of this book is that Owen becomes so wrapped up in the efficiency and reduction of car travel that comes with dense living that he drifts into the territory of what Nathaniel Johnson of Grist has dubbed “unfeeling utilitarians“. His descriptions of city living- something which, ironically, he ultimately eschews, living instead in a suburb in Connecticut- come off as stark and impersonal, with as many people packed into an area as comfortable.  Very little attention is paid to the things that actually make cities enjoyable to live in. One particular example that jumped out at me was when he described the in-built efficiencies of residential colleges, saying

“[R]esidential colleges and universities provide terrific examples of the environmental advantages of increasing population density and mixed-use…most residential college students live in small spaces in energy-efficient, multiunit buildings, and they work and entertain themselves within short distances of the places where they sleep…travel…by walking, riding bikes, or using public transportation, and they eat most of their meals in centralized dining halls, which reduce meal-related energy use, food waste, and infrastructure duplication.”

I mean, it takes work to make the college experience sound dreary and oppressive, but somehow, Owen manages to do it!

While this approach may be compelling for other environmentally-minded thinkers, who may be used to thinking in terms of numbers and overall benefit,  I can imagine how all too easily, it could end up fueling the nightmares of paranoid right-wingers, fearing a future where we’re all herded into impersonal, Soviet-style apartment blocs.

Owen also is ambivalent urban agriculture (arguing, of course, that it may not be efficient as centralized production), and towards integrating nature into the urban landscape in general.  He also doesn’t see much use for getting people out of cities, either, writing

“A sensitive person’s first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans, especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be one of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor activities, . . . In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or for the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wilderness on TV than fly to it in an airplane and drive across it on a motorbike.”

While there is something to be said for this argument- there are plenty of National Parks and other wilderness areas that have actually suffered degradation from tourist traffic- it seems to be me to be a potentially self-defeating solution.  If nature becomes something you purely see on TV, something abstract, people may not be that concerned about protecting it in the first place (this leave aside the fact that video games, TV, and other electronic equipment can be drivers of high electricity consumption; Owen nonetheless supports this outcome, citing a study that these practices reduced- you guessed it- oil consumption from driving; ultimately, for Owen, everything seems to come back to this one topic).

With all that said, I do think this book needed to be written, as it provides a highly valuable reality check to environmentalism about the actual sustainability of different living arrangements.  But there are other writers who have tackled this subject much more holistically, thinking in terms of energy use and production, food production, and material consumption, and who have also pointed out the social benefits of city life, from stronger social cohesion and social capital, to a vibrant cultural scene, to the innovation driven by the mixing of different peoples and ideas.  From Lloyd Alter’s goldilocks density to Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero, Green Metropolis is hardly the last word on urban environmentalism- something we should be very thankful for.

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About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
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