The Big Green Apple

It’s easy being green in NYC.

Will Boisvert

What’s the most eco­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able town in Amer­i­ca? Most peo­ple pon­der­ing this ques­tion might imag­ine a vil­lage in Ver­mont with rolling hills and road­side farm stands. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists might cite Port­land, Ore., with its hydropow­er, vast urban parks and strict land-use reg­u­la­tions. David Owen’s can­di­date is a utopi­an envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty” in New York state where he stayed after col­lege. Peo­ple there lived in tiny dwellings designed for max­i­mum ener­gy effi­cien­cy and walked or took pub­lic trans­porta­tion because the rules made dri­ving a car vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble. Its inhab­i­tants called this aus­tere eco-com­mune Man­hat­tan.”

The modern-day green gadgetry touted by environmentalists succeeds more at maintaining the car culture and suburban homeownership than at sustaining the environment.

The notion that our grayest set­tle­ment is also our green­est will strike many peo­ple as an absur­di­ty. We’re used to think­ing of New York City as entire­ly incom­pat­i­ble with nature, an arti­fi­cial land­scape of steel and con­crete and asphalt that chokes the air with exhaust fumes, poi­sons the waters with sewage and buries every inch of open space under an office tow­er. It’s also, in con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, a tox­ic spir­i­tu­al envi­ron­ment: a ster­ile rat race where vice and dis­ease flour­ish and human nature lan­guish­es. In Green Metrop­o­lis: What the City Can Teach the Coun­try About True Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Owen mounts a vig­or­ous chal­lenge to both of these hoary tenets of envi­ron­men­tal­ism. New York’s dense urban­i­ty, he con­tends, offers a com­pelling blue­print for address­ing our eco­log­i­cal crises, not with pie-in-the-sky tech­nol­o­gy, but with the under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed virtues of phys­i­cal and social connectedness.

Accord­ing to Owen, it’s New York’s most obvi­ous fea­ture – lots of peo­ple, all crowd­ed togeth­er – that make it a green poster-burg. New York­ers live cheek by jowl and stacked 30 sto­ries atop each oth­er, with res­i­dences crammed in along­side shops and offices and fac­to­ries. The city’s extreme den­si­ty and com­pact­ness result in great ener­gy effi­cien­cy, because they enable – and com­pel – its res­i­dents to for­go cars and detached hous­es, two of America’s great­est fos­sil fuel-guz­zlers. New York­ers can eas­i­ly get to most of the places they want to go on foot and to the rest by a mass tran­sit sys­tem that can afford to be ubiq­ui­tous and con­ve­nient, because it is always thronged with rid­ers. Mean­while, the city’s hor­ren­dous traf­fic induces a social­ly benign state of dri­ver frus­tra­tion” in motorists, who face per­pet­u­al grid­lock, epic jour­neys in search of park­ing spaces and hordes of inso­lent pedes­tri­ans weav­ing around blocked cars and saun­ter­ing against the light. It’s enough to make mil­lions of New York­ers swear off cars altogether. 

Plus, the city’s mas­sive apart­ment build­ings are mar­vels of low-tech insu­la­tion: Most of the heat seep­ing from one apart­ment warms the units abut­ting it, rather than escap­ing into space as it would in a sub­ur­ban house. The casu­al col­lec­tivism of ten­e­ment life abounds in mate­r­i­al effi­cien­cies that add up to a kind of mind­less anti-con­sumerism. The 70 house­holds in my build­ing, for exam­ple, make do with just six base­ment wash­ing machines and dry­ers among them. Peo­ple liv­ing in New York’s cramped apart­ments buy less stuff than oth­er Amer­i­cans, Owen notes, sim­ply because they have no place to put it.

The upshot of all those New York­ers jostling onto the sub­way, schlep­ping bags home from the cor­ner gro­cery and yelling at the upstairs neigh­bors to keep it down is noth­ing short of an envi­ron­men­tal mir­a­cle. Thanks to their thought­less­ly low-impact lifestyle, the typ­i­cal New Yorker’s car­bon foot­print is less than a third of the aver­age American’s. If every­one lived the same way, the nation’s car­bon diox­ide emis­sions would plunge by 70 per­cent. Man­hat­tan has essen­tial­ly solved the prob­lem of glob­al warm­ing using the most advanced tech­nolo­gies of the 1890s.

By con­trast, the mod­ern-day green gad­getry tout­ed by envi­ron­men­tal­ists suc­ceeds more at main­tain­ing the car cul­ture and sub­ur­ban home­own­er­ship than at sus­tain­ing the envi­ron­ment, Owen argues. Peo­ple who own hybrids tend to com­pen­sate for high­er gas mileage by dri­ving longer dis­tances, and the rooftop wind tur­bines and pho­to­voltaics affixed to green show­case hous­es hard­ly make up for their waste­ful size and heat-spilling pic­ture win­dows. Owen is espe­cial­ly deri­sive of green archi­tec­ture guide­lines that pre­scribe tri­fles like veg­e­ta­tive roofs and employ­ee bike racks while encour­ag­ing com­pa­nies to site their offices amid open space, a prac­tice that push­es devel­op­ment into regions far from the urban core that are only acces­si­ble by auto­mo­bile. Any lumpen sky­scraper in Man­hat­tan is green­er than the most avant-garde sub­ur­ban office park, he rea­sons, because its work­ers arrive by mass transit.

At the root of such wrong-head­ed­ness, Owen locates an anti-urban bias intrin­sic to envi­ron­men­tal­ism, a knee-jerk Jef­fer­son­ian con­vic­tion that embrac­ing nature means spurn­ing the city. He finds it in Amory Lovins’s Rocky Moun­tain Insti­tute, a cut­ting edge eco-edi­fice that he regards as an envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter area because it is sit­u­at­ed in a rur­al area that is unreach­able except by car. He finds it in food guru Michael Pol­lan and oth­er loca­vore ide­o­logues who don’t real­ize that dri­ving 50 miles to get pro­duce at a farm­stand actu­al­ly wastes more ener­gy than hav­ing it shipped thou­sands of miles to a city super­mar­ket by rail. He finds it, above all, in our Thore­au­vian idea that a respon­si­ble green lifestyle means back­yard organ­ic gar­dens and com­post piles, curb­side recy­cling and fierce cam­paigns to pre­serve green space from devel­op­ment. What the gar­dens and yards and ver­dant expans­es amount to, Owen observes, is a dif­fuse set­tle­ment pat­tern that requires auto trans­porta­tion for sur­vival, with all the req­ui­site infra­struc­ture of high­ways and park­ing lots and strip malls. Our flight from the city into nature isn’t an anti­dote to sprawl – it is sprawl.

So there’s a con­tra­dic­tion that bedev­ils our anti-urban eco-con­scious­ness: Much as we pro­fess to love nature, nature does not love us; the tighter we clasp her, the faster she dies. It’s not even clear that we can love nature whole­heart­ed­ly. For all our fetishiz­ing of open spaces, stud­ies show that peo­ple tend to shun them – not just because of our pri­mal dread of lone­ly places where preda­tors lurk, Owen con­jec­tures, but because vacant green­ery is irre­me­di­a­bly bor­ing. Peo­ple are fas­ci­nat­ed by oth­er peo­ple, which is why the end­less car­ni­val of New York’s street life is a more mag­net­ic draw than Cen­tral Park.

New York’s den­si­ty forces its mil­lions to con­front and abate the tox­i­c­i­ty of mod­ern life through a vast, kvetch­ing project of com­mu­nal self-con­trol and prob­lem-solv­ing. A car makes its dri­ver a self-suf­fi­cient nation of one,” Owen writes. That’s an ethos that the city com­bats far more forth­right­ly than the indi­vid­u­al­ized green con­sumerism of the exur­ban environmentalist. 

But New York isn’t all lim­i­ta­tion and con­straint; as it strug­gles to tame neg­a­tive exter­nal­i­ties, it offers a boun­ty of pos­i­tive exter­nal­i­ties in the daz­zling vari­ety and inten­si­ty of activ­i­ties its teem­ing mul­ti­tudes sup­port. On a mile-long stroll around my neigh­bor­hood, I can stop at the bank, get my hair cut, buy gro­ceries and a com­put­er, and apply for a pass­port; if I have time to kill dur­ing that cir­cuit I can eat at one of dozens of restau­rants, see a movie, take karate lessons, vis­it a muse­um of medieval art, brood over a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War bat­tle­field and wor­ship any num­ber of gods. And, yes, I can com­mune with nature, in a beau­ti­ful lit­tle park over­look­ing the Hud­son that’s fre­quent­ed by hawks, wild turkeys, skunks and wan­der­ing herds of humans who make the place feel both live­li­er and safer. My one brush with crime in the city came one day when I was pass­ing through the park and was set upon by a group of Domini­can teenagers; they were prompt­ly chased away by anoth­er group of Domini­can teenagers who hap­pened to be walk­ing by. That’s the thing about Man­hat­tan: There are always peo­ple walk­ing by, ready – usu­al­ly – to lend a hand. 

Will Boisvert is an In These Times con­tribut­ing editor.
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