Author David Owen says dense cities benefit the planet

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      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.”



      Sven Crawson

      Mar 9, 2011 at 3:36pm

      Funny thing is that in Vancouver there's a small but very loud group of people who don't think a city should have any tall buildings and want everything to stay exactly as it is, even if it's a slum like a large section of the DTES. They claim they support "sustainable living," however, now we know that in reality they are anti-green, anti-sustainable and anti-Earth.

      Isn't it also interesting that Gregor and his Vision crowd rode into power by thoroughly trashing Sam Sullivan and EcoDensity? Their response was to create something called "Greenest City" which is basically a slogan, logo and a brochure designed as an image piece to prop up Gregor's flimsy accomplishments.

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      Big Evil Developer

      Mar 9, 2011 at 7:42pm

      I'll be there, do you know if there will be security to keep the riff raff out or will I have to dress down and pretend to be one of them?

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      unknown sample

      Mar 10, 2011 at 2:35pm

      Sven Crawson makes a good point. Vancouver seems to have an overinfluential anti-development crowd that opposes all sorts of initiatives that would make increased city density possible or viable.

      Increased density means less pollution and makes transit and bicycles a more attractive option. These are all good things, but you gotta have the people, the homes, the businesses and the jobs per square kilometer to do it.

      A world class city doesn't just call itself a world class city, they get things done without being hindered by a rabid anti-everything vocal minority.

      Build and they will come.

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      Cristian Worthington

      Mar 10, 2011 at 6:16pm

      The average person living in downtown Vancouver produces 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. The average person living in a distant suburb produces 15 tonnes (ten times as much).

      With EcoDensity Sam Sullivan has taken on the most important environmental cause of our time. No other public policy promises to make as much progress in reducing green house gases and global warming.

      Imagine, every housing unit you build in the suburbs will generate 10 times the environmental damage for the life of the building. Forget changing light bulbs or switching from plastic bags to cloth or driving an electric car. If we can change the widely held view that tall buildings are bad, we can go a long way toward a more sustainable planet.

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      Mar 10, 2011 at 6:42pm

      It is crazy that we have this polarity in Vancouver. On the one hand we want to be the Greenest City but on the other hand we don't want any increase in urban density. Increasing density is the single biggest thing we could do to be more environmentally friendly, bar none. No amount of backyard chickens or green roofs can touch the overall impact that more people in less space could achieve.

      We need to stop reacting to every sustainable boondoggle that comes along and deal with some of the big moves we could be making -- moves that actually make a big difference.

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      Lee L

      Mar 12, 2011 at 10:31am

      There are far better ways to go than putting us all in beehives. We could start by looking at WHY people actually have to go to a workplace every day. Networks are far better now than they used to be and so is the software. Commute your brain not your body where possible. Even one day a week telecommuting is a 20 percent reduction in fuel.

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      Bill McCreery1

      Mar 15, 2011 at 11:49am

      EcoDensity is another step in a densification process that has a very long history in Vancouver starting with the Bartholomew Plan, the West End, False Creek, Coal Harbour, planning policies, etc. The EcoDensity Charter says all the right things, but it stops there.

      And, unfortunately, the way it's objectives are being realized by the current Vision Council are misguided, and in fact are achieving the opposite. Take the massive density increase proposed at Shannon Mews. If this non-green spot rezoning is passed it will mean 2,000+ people will have to get in their cars every time they want to get a litre of milk. Is that going to make Vancouver the worlds greenest city Mayor Robertson? Saying so doesn't make it so.

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      Mar 18, 2011 at 9:34am

      Density can be an effective tool in addressing sustainability challenges, but like any other tool, it needs to be used carefully. Randomly increasing density on individual sites has the effect of driving up land values on other sites that might (or might not) be eligible for similar increases in development potential. Density needs to be used in appropriate locations where a complete range of services is possible and where livability can be preserved. To determine appropriate locations we need municipalities that are actively planning communities in a manner to balance public and private interests - not continually "reacting" to development industry requests to rezone property.

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