Author David Owen says dense cities benefit the planet
The urban jungle that more than eight million New Yorkers call home is the greenest city in America.
This statement may baffle those who regard New York City’s concrete canyons as the opposite of green, but Connecticut-based writer David Owen makes the case that the Hong Kong of the Hudson is a model of environmental sustainability.
Owen is the author of Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009), a book that argues that dense cities are good for the planet. He will deliver a talk at the Vancouver Playhouse on March 17; the event starts at 7:30 p.m.
“New Yorkers have the lowest per capita energy use in the United States,” Owen told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They have the smallest carbon footprint per person. They’re the most significant users of public transit in the U.S. They have the lowest rate of automobile ownership. We have more registered vehicles than licensed drivers, and I assume the same is true in Canada. But in New York City, in Manhattan, 77 percent of all households don’t own even one car.”
According to Owen, the thing that makes NYC seem like an environmental time bomb is the same reason that makes it an ecological paragon: its highly compact population.
“One of the great challenges is mixing up people and the places where they go,” he said.
Owen, a long-time writer for New Yorker magazine, provided some figures to demonstrate how the most populous American city gets it right.
For example, 82 percent of residents in Manhattan, a major city borough, go to work by transit, bicycle, or on foot. That’s 10 times the rate for Americans in general.
New York accounts for almost a third of all the transit-passenger miles travelled in the U.S. Its subway system is the third-busiest in the world, after those in Tokyo and Moscow. New York City’s buses carry 842 million passengers a year, which is more than the combined total of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
The average New Yorker generates only 7.1 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, less than 30 percent of the national average.
These are all possible because New York has a dense population. For example, according to Owen’s figures, Manhattan has about 67,000 people per square mile, or more than 800 times the national average and 30 times that of Los Angeles.
Owen’s speaking engagement in Vancouver is being organized by the Global Civic Policy Society of ex-mayor Sam Sullivan.
Sullivan, a former politician who takes pride in taking on hard issues, pushed the City of Vancouver during his term to adopt EcoDensity, his brainchild concept that seeks to build a greener city through greater population densities.
Now an adjunct professor at the UBC school of architecture and landscape architecture, a position he took on starting in January this year, Sullivan reflected on how he changed the way many Vancouverites view density.
“I noticed that when people would come to public hearings after the EcoDensity initiative started, it was very rare to hear”¦[them] say density is bad,” Sullivan said with an amused laugh in a phone interview with the Straight. “What they would say is: ”˜I’m not against density, but not here.’”
According to Sullivan, Owen will also help him launch what he called the Centre for Market Urbanism. “The idea is that government has a lot of responsibility for creating sprawl,” Sullivan said. “There’s a great demand by the market for increased density. And because government is constantly saying ”˜no’ to density, we now have the sprawl we have across the region.”