Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability


Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares?as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, David Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan?the most densely populated place in North America?rank first in public-transit use and last in per-capita ...
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Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares—as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, David Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan—the most densely populated place in North America—rank first in public-transit use and last in per-capita greenhouse gas production, and they consume gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. They are also among the only people in the United States for whom walking is still an important means of daily transportation.

These achievements are not accidents. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel green, but it doesn't reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address. Owen contends that the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world's nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the pristine countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
The deservedly respected journalist David Owen spent a lot of time in recent years patrolling the environmental beat, doing research for the excellent book we now have before us…Owen's style, here as in his 13 previous books, is cool, understated and witty; it does not appear to be in his nature to be alarmist. But this is a thoroughly alarming book, perhaps all the more so because Owen is so matter-of-fact: The facts alone are so discouraging that no rhetorical flourishes are necessary to underscore their urgency.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Owen packs a mean and green punch in this comprehensive look at how high-density city living is the environmentally responsible choice. His argument seems sound and his research is extensive, but Patrick Lawlor’s delivery lends a defensive tone to Owen’s appeal. The slight chip on the shoulder edge to his reading aside, Lawlor has an engaging and lively voice that breezes through Owen’s more complicated explanations about the differences between city dwelling and its potentially sustainable opportunities. Both author and narrator come together well to provide a fresh new point of view in the debate on humans and the environment. A Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, June 1). (Dec.)
Library Journal
New Yorker writer Owen lays out a simple plan to address our environmental crisis—live smaller, live closer, and drive less. He presents a convincing argument that the antiurbanism of American environmental thought is flawed [Stewart Brand makes the same point in his Whole Earth Discipline, see above—Ed.]. The built-in efficiencies of urban life create and preserve open spaces, whereas suburban sprawl contributes to energy inefficiency and further environmental degradation. Just as Thomas L. Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded discussed the role of oil in American life and our need to redefine America's vision, Owen asserts that every discussion about the environment is, in the end, about oil and that reducing environmental destruction means redefining our view of prosperity. He effectively connects the dots among oil, cars, public transportation, ethanol, rising food prices, and the role of plastic in modern life. VERDICT Owen's engaging, accessible book challenges the idea of green and urban living. Recommended for readers interested in urban planning or environmental issues. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/09.]—Robin K. Dillow, Oakton Community Coll., Des Plaines, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Want to reduce your carbon footprint and save the planet? Move to Manhattan. New Yorker staff writer Owen (Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, 2006, etc.) seeks earnestly to overturn the traditional wisdom that says the only way to show your love for Mother Earth is to move to the country, make candles and go locavore. "New York," he writes, "is the greenest community in the United States." This may seem counterintuitive, but consider: Most urbanites live in small spaces rather than the McMansions of suburbia, if only because they cannot afford anything larger, and most walk to the grocery store, take mass transit and get enough exercise to avoid becoming slugs (mere consumers, that is). Conversely, a back-to-the-lander may live virtuously, but taking a Volvo rather than Birkenstocks to the store undoes many good intentions. Owen assembles useful facts, some of them sure to be surprises even for the most learned of NYC boosters. Still, he recognizes that were it not for the accident of crowded island life, Manhattan and environs could just as easily be Los Angeles. "When cities are built on a ‘human' scale," he writes, "they virtually force the creation of vast suburbs, with miles of freeways, long commutes, traffic jams, and shopping malls." Occasionally the author inflates the significance of the facts to support his thesis. After all, it comes down to the hows as well as the wheres-a vegetarian living in the country, for instance, no matter how car-happy, will use fewer resources than a meat eater in the city. Owen works the city-versus-countryside theme into the ground-ruralites may feel a little picked-on-but the author does animportant service in pointing out that those who live in cities can be just as green as your garden-variety organic farmer-and even more so. He's no McPhee or Pollan, but Owen provides a dogged, contrarian argument that scores some good points.
From the Publisher
"Owen's cool, understated and witty; it does not appear to be in his nature to be alarmist. But this is a thoroughly alarming book." —-The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400113712
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/23/2009
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 5.46 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of a dozen books, including The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning: And Other Adventures in American Enterprise.

An AudioFile Earphones Award winner and Audie Award finalist, Patrick Lawlor is also an accomplished stage actor.

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