March 2010

Shattering the Myths of Sustainability

It might be counterintuitive to most Americans, but cities offer the most viable models of sustainability. That assertion runs counter to our cultural history. Since the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we have vilified urban life and been enamored, like Henry David Thoreau, of living close to nature. The results of our hunger sprawl around us. Today, rather than finding ourselves freed to commune with the out-of-doors, we have become shackled to the automobile, a situation in which it takes an SUV to get from Walden Pond to the marketplace for a gallon of milk. So says David Owens in his seminal new book, Green Metropolis, to be read by anyone concerned with the true meaning of sustainability.

Photo © André Souroujon

In chapter after chapter, Owens punctures our myths surrounding the green movement with laser-guided precision in the hopes of clearing the air. His method is provocative, setting us up with teasers such as the following: “Most of the products, technologies, and practices popularly touted as sustainable are not sustainable at all.” Then he tells us, dispassionately, why.

His underlying message is that we accept popular notions without critically examining them. Lacking the scientific or factual basis of our beliefs, we subscribe to worthwhile ideas like sustainability with the herd mentality, swallowing whatever we read and obsessing about details while ignoring the big picture. Instead, he suggests, the truth should be derived from facts, not mere emotions.

Back to the gallon of milk. With straightforward language and clarity of argument, a reportorial style rather than philosophical argument, Owens reminds us how much more efficient urban living can be. Rather than driving and expending petroleum-based fuel to reach the strip mall, the city dweller can often simply walk downstairs, or perhaps just down the block for the same purchase. The difference between a short walk and a long drive can be a major savings in energy usage and carbon footprint. And herein lies one of his major messages: In cities, large savings can occur regardless of the motivation of the citizen. It might seem unfair, but you don’t have to care to live more responsibly; the framework of urban life inevitably results in a more sustainable environment.

His points can be summarized as follows: In a world of finite resources, in which the actual number of human beings is increasing, our stewardship is best exercised by minimizing our footprint on the land. In other words, density offers the best solution for habitation. The density of cities, and the interdependencies they provide, point to the best solutions, rather than (sorry architects) designs for the most sustainable individual buildings, changes to energy recovery systems, or advances to the automobile — topics we expend a great deal of energy on ourselves. (If anything, he encourages less automobile usage, period, with greater reliance on mass transit or foot traffic.)

Repeatedly, he returns to New York City, that maligned metropolis, as the best lesson of a sustainable city in the United States. Among Gotham’s lessons are its verticality and consequent density, together with a blend of residential and commercial venues, which, he suggests, encourage successful public transit, among other benefits. Neither Boulder, Colorado, nor Portland, Oregon, both darlings of the planning movement, can compare with New York’s successes with subways, buses, or foot traffic.

Despite having moved away from the city streets to a bucolic village in rural Connecticut, Owens nostalgically yearns for the city’s dividends. New York teaches us to “live smaller.” For decades, Americans have idealized larger and larger houses, which he advises us to abandon in favor of less space. New York teaches us to “live closer,” reducing our needs for cars, streets, and for the infrastructure that underlies the roadways, and the extras that accompany suburban living, such as lawn-care products.

Owens sets himself as something of a contemporary iconoclast, praising clogged streets, for example, that inhibit the flow of traffic, which ultimately works to sustainability’s advantage. (Have you thought such good thoughts when stuck in a midtown jumble?) He champions the power of the human leg, citing its ability to improve our overall health and, in well-designed cities, to take us where we need to go.

With fearlessness, he knocks some favored icons. Massive Central Park may have its advantages, but people don’t walk through it to reach the east or west side of Manhattan; instead, people tend to walk where the action occurs, along the perimeters, where shops and enhanced sense of security prove more inviting passage. Better to sprinkle more approachable parkland throughout the urban fabric.

Ratings systems, such as LEED, have a “fundamental weakness,” he thinks, as a “values-laden incentive system” that promotes individual buildings, particularly those produced by high-end developers. No suggested system is offered as an alternative, nor does he fully deny the obvious values of either Central Park or rating projects; he simply points out what he sees as their limitations.

In addition to promoting density, he finds other areas that hold the keys to the future of our cities outside the traditional design disciplines. Although designers might like to feel at the fulcrum of urban redevelopment, he cites our collective need to return to “concerns like education, culture, crime, street noise, bad smells, resources for the elderly, and the availability of recreational activities.” Addressing those messy, hard-to-achieve social and cultural issues may be the best means to urban health, and ultimately, to sustainability.

Green Metropolis says that we have to take certain values, such as the architecture of increasingly energy-efficient buildings, for granted, expanding our focus to the larger framework that presents the complete picture. At the same time, with irreverent lucidity, he forces us to abandon unfounded beliefs, allowing the sustainability movement to evolve and mature, one realization and one city at a time.

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