Book review

Getting to green: smaller, denser, walkable living

By Anthony Flint
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2009

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For the past quarter century, the environmental movement has viewed cities with a certain distaste: They belch toxic fumes, use up energy, generate tons of solid waste, and pollute the water. The mandate has been to contain the sprawling metropolis, to lock up land in conservation, without thinking too much about where growth is supposed to go.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, groups like the Sierra Club began to celebrate urban centers. With the US population growing steadily - 400 million people by 2050 - they realized that cities weren’t the problem; for a greener planet, they were a big part of the answer.

In today’s context of climate change, energy, and a new green economy, David Owen makes an eloquent case that density is in fact the most efficient form of human settlement, in “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability.’’

Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker, traces his own family’s movement to illustrate the point: starting out in New York, then relocating to rural Litchfield County in Connecticut, a seemingly more environmentally friendly arrangement. But then he realizes he must hop in the car for the simplest errands. Heating and cooling his single-family home racked up 30,000 kilowatt-hours a year, in contrast to their city apartment at 4,000. In Manhattan, the heat rose through the multiple floors, and the family could walk or take the subway to just about anything. On a per capita basis, New York is remarkably energy-efficient.

“New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms,’’ Owen writes, “because the tightly cir cumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption . . . the apparent ecological innocuousness of widely dispersed populations - as in leafy suburbs or seemingly natural exurban areas such as mine - is an illusion.’’

In the tradition of fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, Owen is in the business of explaining the counterintuitive. Similarly, he has expanded a New Yorker article - his widely acclaimed 6,000-word piece in 2004 titled “Green Manhattan’’ - into an 85,000-word book, which can be a tricky exercise. “Green Metropolis’’ is a thoughtful exploration of the tweaks and policy initiatives in modern-day urban planning and urban design, from green building and green standards for neighborhood development, to transit improvements and better parks and congestion pricing.

It is hard and sometimes unglamorous work, as the Obama administration and mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg, with his sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC, have discovered. One of the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cities is to retrofit older apartment buildings, replacing inefficient windows and furnaces, for example.

Owen is wise to keep his eye on the prize: building more livable cities to attract more of the growing population, even as he remains in Connecticut. The complexity in the personal politics and culture of sustainability - the true value of buying local food, the net carbon footprint of driving a Prius on long commutes, the dilemma of long-haul jet travel - can get dizzying. So, too, there is no easy answer in telling the Chinese they should neither own cars nor live in the suburban environments that dominated our landscape after World War II. But “Green Metropolis’’ is an important contribution to our understanding of how we live.

Anthony Flint, author of “Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,’’ is at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge.

GREEN METROPOLIS: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability By David Owen

Riverhead, 357 pp., $25.95

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