On top of Chicago’s 11-story City Hall sits a rooftop garden that has come to symbolize the Windy City’s ambition to be a green role model. The garden consists of 20,000 plants and a couple of trees. It is said to help improve air quality, conserve energy, reduce stormwater runoff and lessen the heat in the building.
Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not exactly what David Owen (right), author and staff writer for The New Yorker, had in mind when he wrote his debated book “Green Metropolis” that was published in 2009.
I listened to and met Owen when he presented his book in Chicago a couple of months ago.
The book, which is subtitled “Why living smaller, living closer and driving less are the keys to sustainability” takes on most conventional green thinking and turns in upside down in a witty and often provocative way.
This quotation from the beginning of the first chapter defines his main theme:
“Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility. In fact, by the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States.”
“It doesn’t have much to do with grass on the roof. The most important environmental issue is how you can attract more people to live in big cities with a density that means more for the environment than anything else”, said David Owen when I talked to him after his lecture in Chicago.
Owen has a strong case when he argues that New York, or rather Manhattan, is the greenest community in the United States. Inhabitants walk, bike or ride public transportation to work to a much higher extent than any other place in America.
They live much closer together and therefore use much less space, needing and consuming much less energy that their fellow Americans.
The opposite is suburban American, with the energy-ineffecient lifestyle that comes with urban sprawl. People commute for hours in cars, to and from large houses that consume much more energy than the compact homes of urban dwellers. And not only that, argues Owen. The infrastructure needed to enable this lifestyle leads to even more waste of energy and resources.
“In New York, consumption of energy per capita is lower that anywhere else in the United States. A third of all trips in New York are done on public transportation. The number of households on Manhattan that doesn’t have a car is 77 percent. In the rest of the country that figure is close to zero percent”, said Owen.
In his book he crushes a lot of illusions on “green living”. Buying local, installing solar panels, car-pooling, recycling waste, use of eco-gadgets – all the little things that make the everyday environmentalist in you feel good can in many ways, argues Owen, have the opposite effect.
“We are good at solutions that involve buying new things, but not as good at solutions that means that we should have less of something.”
Make cities more attractive seems to be his main message.
“There is no easy way. You have to improve quality of life in cities to make more people want to live there. But you can also improve things by making it more difficult to drive cars. Friends of the environment should buy parking spaces in cities and build homes there”, said Owen.
“Green Metropolis” has stirred emotions and lead to debate in the U.S., which of course was Owen’s intention when he wrote the book. Some reviewers, who credit Owen for making a good point on the case of “green” Manhattan, are critical of other parts of the book. This review in the New York Times is one example.
With his book, Owen also sets the scene for what might be one of the biggest battles for president Barack Obama when he seeks re-election two and half years from now. Obama is seen as an “urban president” who basically supports the ideas in “Green Metropolis”.
This angers Obamas conservative opponents, who are already rallying to the defence of suburban American.
In a piece headlined “The War Against Suburbia”, Joel Kotkin writes about this battle in The American (the journal the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank).
“Yet fundamentally the attack on suburbia has less to do with market trends or the environment than with a deep-seated desire to change the way Americans live. For years urban boosters have proposed that more Americans should reside in what they deemed ‘more livable’, denser, transit-oriented communities for their own good. One recent example, David Owens Green Metropolis, supports the notion that Americans should be encouraged to embrace ‘extreme compactness’ – using Manhattan as the model.”
Others have also begun to see cities vs. suburbs as the American political conflict that will define the next decade. Alex Steffen, well-known editor of Worldchanging, did it in this recent interview.
Despite all the sense David Owens arguments make in “Green Metropolis”, he has one big flaw. In the mid-80’s, he and his family left Manhattan for rural Connecticut where he still lives in the not-so-green multi-car lifestyle he shares with so many Americans.
Even his fans have a problem with this.
He makes no secret of this and at the end of his book he writes that if he and his wife would choose to return to New York “we might hugely reduce our personal environmental footprint, but we would leave humanity’s environmental footprint unchanged, because in order to move we would have to sell our house and our cars and most of the rest of our possessions to other people, who would continue to use them – and life, on balance, would go on as before.”
When I listened to David Owen, and read his book, my impression was not that he argues for the demolition of suburban American and the forced removal of people into big cities. Everybody knows that’s impossible.
I would rather see the book as a wake-up call for America as it plans for its future growth.
This is the second in a series of interviews with American urban thinkers and activists that I met in Chicago recently. More will follow in the weeks to come.
The green roof of Chicago's City Hall.