Green Metropolis:

By David Owen
Riverhead Books, 2009, 368 pp., $32.50 hardcover.

Environmental groups have tended to look at the tall buildings, extensive pavement, traffic, and intensive resource consumption of cities and conclude that cities are unhealthy — that the world would be better off if people’s lives were more closely intertwined with nature. But that kind of thinking has probably caused more environmental harm than good.

In fact, city dwellers use power, water, petroleum, and other resources more sparingly than residents of suburbs and countryside. The average resident of Vermont consumes more than four times as much electricity as the average inhabitant of New York City. The Vermonter generates more solid waste per person, and has a larger carbon footprint. It is urban life — with the inherent efficiency that comes from concentrating activity — that is easier on the planet’s overstressed ecology.

Nobody makes the case for cities’ superior environmental performance better than David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In October 2004, Owen wrote a much-noticed article on “why New York is the greenest city in the US.” Now he has expanded the article into a well-researched book that vigorously defends cities from misguided environmental thought.

He argues that dense urban living “sharply reduces [people’s] opportunities to be wasteful, enables most of them to get by without owning cars, encourages them to keep their families small,” and causes many to live in apartment buildings, which, because of their stacked units and shared walls, are “some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world.” All the more shame, then, that prominent environmental organizations behave in anti-urban ways.

Location inefficiency
He points out that Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute, which is ostensibly devoted to “the efficient and restorative use of resources,” occupies a mountainside headquarters building that “was built in a fragile location, on virgin land” in Snowmass, Colorado, 180 miles from the nearest public transportation system. By choosing such a thinly populated area, the Institute in effect forces most of its 80 full-time staff to drive many miles and necessitates “extra fuel consumption by delivery trucks, snowplows, maintenance crews, and others, and by Amory Lovins himself when he leaves Snowmass to fly to his numerous consulting and speaking engagements all over the world,” says Owen.

“If RMI’s employees worked on a single floor of a big building in downtown Denver and lived in apartments nearby, many of them would be able to give up their cars, and the thousands of visitors who drive to Snowmass each year to learn about environmentally responsible construction could travel by public transit instead,” Owen says. “And Lovins could ride to the airport on a bus.”

Owen’s criticism might be unfair if other environmental organizations had consistently set better examples. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation moved from downtown Annapolis to a new building, the Merrill Center, on “a thirty-two-acre site ten miles from central Annapolis and an hour’s drive from either Baltimore or Washington, DC, where many of its visitors originate,” Owen reports. The building received the highest rating,  platinum, in the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification system.

“One of the LEED credits that the Merrill Center earned was for ‘maximizing open space’ by building on only a small part of its large building lot — a credit category that might be thought of as LEED’s sprawl reward, since it gives developers an incentive” to create “low-density projects on open land far from urban cores,” says Owen. Though he says the Green Building Council has “raised awareness of the environmental implications of building in general,” he argues that LEED is too heavily focused on individual buildings, and not attentive to how the buildings fit into the community and region.

I wish Owen had discussed LEED for Neighborhood Development, which was in its pilot phase when this book was being written and which tries to put the individual building in more of a community perspective. Despite this omission, Green Metropolis provides one the most substantive investigations yet of LEED — accusing the LEED rating system of encouraging builders and designers to pursue points and technology at the expense of urbanism. This green-building mindset is referred to in these pages as “LEED brain.”

Owen raises sharp questions about many of the green techniques routinely celebrated in the popular press. Planted roofs are fine in the right circumstances, he acknowledges, but since “rainwater weighs eight pounds a gallon, and one of the purposes of a green roof is to accumulate that weight and hold it in place,” only a fool would expect green roofs everywhere.

The author has an observant eye for urban design, and appreciates engaging, mixed-use streets. He is quick to counter any statement that even partially devalues dense cities. Owen notes that Chicago architect Douglas Farr, in the book Sustainable Urbanism, wrote: “The unpleasant characteristics of today’s outdoor spaces are especially harmful in close urban settings, actually deterring people from spending time outdoors and reinforcing the tendency to stay indoors and close the windows.” Owen responds: “Farr is wrong about what keeps people inside. In fact, the only parts of the United States in which large numbers of adults with indoor jobs regularly spend significant periods of time outdoors are ‘close urban settings,’ and that’s because those are the only parts of the United States where walking remains a practical and necessary form of getting around.”

Green Metropolis is riveting and fiercely intelligent. It’s the best antidote I can think of for the malady known as LEED brain.