Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: Green Metropolis

It seems appropriate that a discussion about Upstate New York should begin with Manhattan. When I’m travelling and people inevitably ask where I’m from, my typical response is a simple, “New York.” If the conversation progresses, however, I might clarify that I’m originally from Albany and that Albany is roughly 150 miles north of “The City.” Because, for most of the world, New York means New York City and the rest of The Empire State is often thought to be either: A) A pristine wilderness (along the lines of the massive Adirondack Park, or B) A collection of irrelevant backwaters. Joann and I would like to argue, via various RE:Fraction International products, projects, and endeavors, that there are gorgeous urban centers in various cities in Upstate New York that don’t pretend to be, or even aspire to be, New York City that are home to artists, writers, and musicians pursuing careers and living creative lives outside of The Big Apple.

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, by David Owen, Riverhead Books, NYC, 2009, 324pp, makes a great argument for people in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse to enjoy the innumerable benefits of one of the greatest agents of environmental change that residents of New York City have (mostly) take for granted for hundreds of years, namely density. Consider these three points from early on in this fascinating book: “Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County.”(p. 2), “The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness.”(p. 3), and “Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they to the environment.”(p. 9) And that’s the selling point of this particular social commentary: Most people don’t consider New York City to be very “green,” but that’s because most people’s concept of “green” is mostly wrong. Per capita, residents of Vermont use three-and-a-half times more gasoline and those in Dallas use three times more electricity than their counterparts in New York City. ““I spoke with one energy expert, who, when I asked him to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the United States, said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.” In European cities, as in Manhattan, in other words, the most important efficiencies are built-in.”(p. 45)

Owen spends a considerable amount of time addressing the economics of oil (both the production and the consumption thereof) in relation to the benefits of high-density living because he asserts that “it is our cars that stand between us and solutions to our gathering energy nightmare.”(p. 114) As an example of this fact, he points to 4 Times Square, a Manhattan skyscraper (that I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of years ago after a reading on Columbus Circle) that includes many innovative environmental features “among them collection chutes for recycled materials, photovoltaic panes incorporated into parts of its skin, natural-gas-fired absorption chillers that provide heating and cooling, and curtain-wall construction with exceptional shading and insulating properties. In terms of the building’s true ecological impact, though, these and other overtly green innovations are distinctly secondary. The two greenest features of 4 Times Square are ones that [...] most other people never even mention: it is big, and it is in Manhattan.”(p. 205)

In “The Shape of Things to Come,” the final chapter of Green Metropolis, Owen writes about Beijing, stating that old Beijing’s neighborhoods worked well before they were paved over to support the millions of new vehicles flooding China’s roadways, and Dubai. And for the latter, he reserves some of his best contempt for sprawl and consumption for the sake of consumption: “Dubai has often called itself a city of the future, but it is actually a city of the past, an explosively growing monument to unsustainability.”(p. 295) In the cities of Northern New York, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the existing infrastructure, stunning architecture, and collective power (both literal and metaphorical) that Owen captures so engagingly in this prolonged thesis about the environmental lessons that we can all learn from Manhattan’s urban efficiencies.

[Cover image lifted from Green Buildings, NYC.]