Two nice articles in the Washington Post over the weekend. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a new book by long-time environmental journalist David Owen, Green Metropolis. Also John Lewis wrote about the Courage of Planning.
1. The tagline of Green Metropolis gets to the heart of the message: "Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, And Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability." Following up on his hit 2004 New Yorker piece Green Manhattan, Owen takes a hard results-based approach to sustainability, giving little credence to green bells and whistles or whatever fashionable solution is currently making the rounds. By the numbers, he shows that New Yorkers, because of the uncharacteristic density of their lifestyles, simply use less energy and land than the rest of us. He revels in the irony that a place with substantial per acre environmental impact, in fact, has the lowest per capita environmental impact anywhere. This should cause those who care about both the earth and humans to take note.
That being said, I question the wisdom of making Manhattan the poster child for urban sustainability. New York is New York. In the U.S., it's an utterly unique city. Statisticians working at the national level tend to dismiss data from the city as an outlier, and I'm afraid the general public may due the same if it is held up as the model. The word "manhattanize" gets 29,000 hits (mostly not happy ones) on Google and even its own Wikipedia page. The Manhattan version of density seems to be more likely treated as a spectre than a savior, fairly or not. On top of that, Manhattan, with its geographic situation and historic pedigree, probably won't be replicable today by even the most concerted act of political will. And it's not as if we can all go move to Manhattan.
But maybe we can extract New York's lessons, conveyed by Owen, without taking the whole city around with us, recognizing that scale and incremental changes will vary significantly from place to place. Fortunately, it really doesn't take the densities of Manhattan to make transit work, provide truly walkable neighborhoods, and conserve energy. I'm not sure what the sweet spot is, but it can't be extraordinarily high. We lived a mostly carfree lifestyle in Montana, which is pretty much not New York.
|Photo credit: flickr Davic|
"Today's planners and urban designers generally share common aims, principles and strategies in shaping visionary master plans at all scales -- county or town, city or suburb. They seek to mitigate the costs of inefficient sprawl; to concentrate denser, mixed uses in areas well served by roads, transit and utilities; to redevelop dysfunctional urban and suburban properties, such as obsolete strip shopping centers and "brown fields"; and to increase affordable-housing opportunities."
Yet he says that much of the actual controversy surrounding plans involves only two things: traffic and density (mostly because it's perceived to induce traffic). Long-range thinking does not enter into the public conversation very often even when the changes ahead are fairly well agreed upon, hence the title of the op-ed, "the courage of planning."