Has the Green Metropolis Sprouted?

David Owen is a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he has reported on a wide range of issues for the magazine since 1991. His most recent book is “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability.” Associate Editor Samantha Superstine corresponded with him over email.

What is the biggest misconception about urban resource use? How did it arise?

Americans in particular have tended to think of dense cities as environmental problems rather than as sources of possible environmental solutions. A deep antipathy to urban life has been close to the heart of American environmentalism since the beginning. Henry David Thoreau established an image, still potent today, of the sensitive nature lover living simply and in harmony with the environment, beyond the edge of civilization. But preaching the sanctity of open spaces helps to propel development into those very spaces, and the process is self-reinforcing because, as one environmentalist said to me, “Sprawl is created by people escaping sprawl.”

David Owen

David Owen

Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them—or think they do—and move to be near them, and then when others follow, move again. Thoreau set the American pattern for creeping residential development by moving a mile from his nearest neighbor, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move a mile farther along. Dense cities look like ecological nightmares, but concentrating people and their activities reduces consumption and contains environmental damage. It’s the existence of Manhattan that makes the Adirondacks possible. The way to create and preserve open spaces is not to spread people out but to move them closer together.

What are the greatest barriers to achieving higher density in U.S. cities?

There are many barriers, including our own powerful desire to create space between ourselves and everyone else. Almost all the incentives in this country favor sprawl and waste, including the tax code, land-use regulations, and transportation and energy policy. And the way we think about the environment contributes, too. We tend to view five houses on one acre as “sprawl,” but one house on a hundred acres as “green.” The biggest single barrier to slowing sprawl is probably the low price of energy in the United States-and especially the low price of transportation fuels.

What is the most important initiative that can be taken in response to urban sprawl, and what does this mean for suburbanites and rural residents?

I don’t like speaking of “urban” sprawl, because a sprawling suburb is actually the antithesis of a city. Furthermore, referring to freeways and strip malls as “urban” phenomena obscures the ecologically monumental difference between Manhattan and Phoenix, or between Copenhagen and Kansas City: it fortifies the perception that population density is an environmental ill. People nowadays tend to think of cars as an “urban” problem, but nearly two-thirds of the first million buyers of the Model T lived on farms or in small towns, and by 1920, when driving was still relatively uncommon in cities, more than half of all farm households in the Midwest had a car.

What to do about any of that is hard to say. Unfortunately, many critical structural incentives in the United States actually a) guarantee harmful outcomes (as was also the case in the buildup to the present credit crisis, in which lenders and borrowers were extravagantly rewarded for taking the steps that led to their self-destruction), b) cater primarily to political and commercial self-interest (as in the promotion of ethanol, which has made politicians look busy on the energy issue and has enriched the producers of ethanol but has harmed just about everyone else), or c) make people feel better without accomplishing anything substantive (as in the economic abracadabra that makes homeowners feel they’re saving the world by installing heavily subsidized solar panels on the roofs of suburban McMansions). We have encouraged sprawl, automobile dependence, and energy gluttony from the beginning, in part by concealing from ourselves the true long- and short-term costs. When potentially useful disincentives have spontaneously arisen, we have generally rushed to neutralize them, as in the late-2008 demands that fuel taxes be reduced to bring down the price of gasoline, or in work-relief proposals to help revive the economy by building new roads or making it easier for people to buy new cars and build new houses.

If there is a plausible way to reduce energy use and greenhouse-gas production in prosperous countries, it almost certainly involves some form of taxation on fuels—a strategy that has the additional benefit of pushing us away from dependence on energy sources of which the world possesses a limited supply. But the chances of any of that happening on a meaningful scale seem very low.

The greenest thing that’s happened in the United States in recent years is the recession, but no one would wish for that suffering to continue.

How does Chicago measure up in terms of its sustainability initiatives? Is it doing well? How can Chicagoland improve as a “green metropolis”?

From a sprawl point of view, Chicago poses a difficulty similar to Kansas City, where I grew up: there isn’t much of a geographical or geological barrier to horizontal expansion—except, of course, along the lake. The densest parts of Chicago are the ones along the lake’s western shore, which acts like a dam against the push of sprawl, but elsewhere development keeps spreading outward, into former agricultural land far from the old city limits. Chicago has the nation’s second-largest public transit system, after New York’s, but the metropolitan area is still heavily car-dependent.

The only way to combat that would be to adjust the incentives and the infrastructure initiatives to make driving more expensive and inconvenient, and to encourage population growth at the urban core rather than at the outer edges of the metroplex. Cities tend to do the opposite. When they build new transit, for example, they usually don’t build it downtown, but rather at the perimeter by extending existing lines even farther into the hinterland. This makes it possible for still more people to live in over-sized houses in sprawling subdivisions in regions where all other travel is by car out of necessity.

Another mistake that environmentalists and politicians make is to decide that cities ought to be more like the country. So they do things like sharply limiting the heights of buildings and easing the intensity of development; creating or enlarging open spaces around structures; taking steps to relieve traffic congestion and reduce the time that drivers spend aimlessly searching for parking spaces; increasing the area devoted to large parks, greenery, and gardening; and incorporating vegetation into buildings themselves. But such efforts miss the point, because in most cases they actually undermine the features that create a 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, while making automobile traffic move more smoothly enhances the allure of owning cars and inevitably reduces ridership on subways and buses.

Because urban density by 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. The right question to focus on would be something like: what do we need to do to make it easier for more people to live without cars? New York City leads the way here, since 54% of city households (and 77% of Manhattan households) don’t own even one car. Compare that to the country overall, where we now have more registered vehicles than licensed drivers.

The U.S. invests a great deal in cars and auto-related infrastructure. What policies exist for cities and metropolitan areas to make urban transportation more sustainable? Which ones are feasible? Which are not?

Transit only works in areas with high density and mixed uses, so there’s little point in talking about buses or trains unless density and land-use regulations are part of the discussion. I guess my main point would be that, in spite of what intuition often tells us, when it comes to reducing a long list of ominous impacts, densely populated, mixed-use urban centers are far better environmental role models than leafy exurban paradises. In order to soften our main environmental impacts, we need to find ways all over the globe to live smaller, live closer, and drive less. Living smaller means occupying smaller living spaces, as city dwellers do by necessity. The size of the average American house has doubled since 1950, even though the average American household has shrunk. Bigger living spaces mean more raw construction materials, more furniture, more appliances, more heating, more cooling, and, in every application, more energy forever.

My wife and I are by no means alone among American homeowners in having a living room we seldom enter except to fluff up the sofa cushions and vacuum the rug. Bigger living spaces also inevitably mean more cars, more spacious yards, longer streets, bigger highways, more parking lots, more civic infrastructure, and all the other accoutrements of suburban sprawl. Living closer means reducing the distance between ourselves and everywhere we go. This is an especially tough one for us Americans, because in many ways our national history, beginning with the Pilgrims, is the record of our determination to put space between ourselves and others.

Sprawl has been our manifest destiny virtually from the beginning, and we’ve embedded it not only in our psyches and national infrastructure but also in our legal system, through land-use regulations that stipulate minimum separations rather than maximums and whose guiding principle often seems to be a conviction that every citizen has an inalienable right to park. And distance, in a paradoxical way, is self-magnifying: when my wife and I lived in New York, I thought nothing of walking a couple of miles doing ordinary errands, because on a busy city street lined with closely spaced stores there are always interesting things to look at and think about, and because the alternative modes of transportation are usually unappealing. By contrast, in my little Connecticut town people often drive the 150 yards between the grocery store and the bookstore, because a paucity of intermediate destinations makes that modest distance seem far longer than it is.

Driving less means weakening our profound dependence on cars—another exasperating challenge for Americans, because of all the innumerable luxuries we take for granted, the one that comes the closest to defining us, both in our own eyes as and the world’s, is the automobile. A still greater difficulty is that, because the United States is so young and North America is so spacious, we Americans have spread ourselves out to such an extent that no other form of transportation can readily or conveniently serve us. Today, most of us live so far from one another and from our daily destinations that going even twenty-four hours without our own wheels can feel like a major deprivation. Every time the price of gasoline spikes, Americans talk earnestly about public transit, but the truth is that in most of the United States, efficient public transit is impossible.

Feature photo:  cc/Winston Hearn

Samantha Superstine
Samantha Superstine is a 2012 MPP graduate of the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in energy policy and financing.

2 Responses to “Has the Green Metropolis Sprouted?

  • TVABoston@hotmail.com'
    Michael Tyrrell
    ago6 years

    Not enough mention of consumerism and its origins in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, The White City, Bob Moses, and Madison Avenue. The desire for automated living space, and the domination of the land by “happy motoring” (Kunstler) can only be reviewed in the context of rampant consumerist values in tandem -more lately- with our “abdication” of civic responsibility.

    Big Oil has got to go.

  • bccrawford@uchicago.edu'
    Brad Crawford
    ago6 years

    Lots to think about here. I think we can all agree that more density and connectedness is better than less, but even a model of density like Manhattan has suffered growing pains from a population that’s growing faster than critical infrastructure and amenities. See Amy O’Leary’s great New York Times story (www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/realestate/how-many-people-can-manhattan-hold.html). As she puts it on the calculus between urban and un-urban, “As much as determining Manhattan’s maximum capacity is about the art and science of urban planning, the question is in some sense much more about psychology. . . . Like most things that are a matter of compromise and desire, it comes down to another simple question: Just how badly do you want what you want?”