I wonder if a new zeitgeist will emerge around the city as the solution to sustainability. Green Metropolis, a new book by the New Yorker’s David Owen, stands conventional eco-wisdom on its head and argues that cities like New York are far greener and eco-friendly than suburban or rural living, and that city living is the solution to global sustainability issues.
While Owen offers few solutions and is too negative on many policy options, his book is a compelling read that may help to recast the conversation around city sustainability. With IBM holding its Smarter Cities New York Summit later this week, now is the time to start talking. More details on how to participate are below.
Owen argues that for centuries, conventional environmental wisdom has been to paint cities as dirty, polluted, congested, crime-ridden places divorced from nature. “Living closer to the land” has been the solution – generating flight to the suburbs and rural areas. Owen posits that the exodus has caused sustainability problems by forcing people to take to their cars to satisfy basic needs, overbuild housing capacity, and over-consume natural resources.
City residents, meanwhile, live more efficiently and have a lower per capita impact on sustainability indicators. For instance, the average New York City resident generates less than 30% of the national average of greenhouse gases. New Yorkers generally live in smaller apartments with fewer possessions, don’t own cars, use 10 times more public transport , create less waste and use less energy per capita than average Americans. Owen neatly summarizes city life as “living smaller, living closer, and driving less” and calls them the keys to sustainability. Narrow streets, wide sidewalks, densely-packed buildings, mixed-use zoning and extensive public transportation – i.e. city life – are the answers to the problems created by sprawl.
These results are achieved not through high-minded regulations but rather through daily necessity driven by the urban environment. If all Americans lived like New Yorkers, global warming wouldn’t exist.
How to get there is a key issue that Owen admits remains “a frustrating mystery.” Owen doesn’t do a comprehensive job of following all of the effects, impacts and feedback loops of various policies. As a result, he is overly negative on many potential solutions, including market-based solutions like congestion pricing. Owen attacks congestion pricing because clearing traffic makes driving more attractive – but he fails to adequately analyze the pricing mechanisms that counter this effect. The results of IBM’s work with Stockhom on their congestion pricing system demonstrates that the right pricing scheme can dissuade driving while clearing streets. The solution reduced traffic and congestion by 18%, stimulated public transportation ridership by 7%, reduced road traffic greenhouse gas emissions by 14-18% and improved air quality in the city.
And we’d also starve to death if everyone moved into high density cities. Owen recognizes that cities depend on externalities to survive. Clearly, the right policy mix needs to include urban, suburban and rural transformation initiatives. Green Metropolis doesn’t figure any of this out, but it does provide fertile ground for others to plant ideas.
Where will those ideas come from? IBM’s upcoming Smarter Cities New York Summit hopes to surface new ideas on how to tackle city sustainability issues. This event, in collaboration with the Partnership for New York City, CUNY and others, will be held on October 1-2 and bring together thought leaders on urban issues from across the spectrum. The four-part agenda includes collaborative break-out discussions on what it takes to build a smarter city. If you’re not at the New York event, you can follow the discussion online via Twitter and the #smartercity tag and, of course, here on asmarterplanet.com.
Editor’s note: The good people at the NRDC just posted a great review of Owen’s book today too on their Switchboard blog.