Monday, September 21

The sustainability, and uniqueness, of Manhattan

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
2. Roger Lewis paints a picture of an essential dilemma planners often find themselves in:

"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."


Anonymous said...

What about Jersey City, New Jersey right across the Hudson River from Manhattan? Jersey City has the second highest number of people who use public transportation next to new york (%40 to %50 percent of the population). In addition, Jersey City is affordable for the average person unlike Manhattan, and the city has 24 hour PATH train service to New York, and it has a seperate light rail system, much of it built along old passenger and freight rail lines.

LH said...

Daniel, along these lines, did you see Witold Rybczynski in this month's Atlantic? Here's the tagline: Forget the solar panels and the rain barrels—if you want to save energy, leave the suburbs. []

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks, LH. I've been a subscriber to the Atlantic for a while, but I always get it a couple weeks after it's released. Pretty annoying.

My grandfather grew up in Jersey City, and he had wonderful stories about all the things he could do by himself as a child. He presented it as a pretty remarkable place. I;ve been a couple of times but only very briefly. I'd like to see more of it.

Anonymous said...

I first visited Manhattan only a few months ago. Having grown up on the edge of a suburban bedroom community in the west, it was mindblowing.

I have been blessed in the west with beautiful and wild places the likes of which you just don't see in the east. But we'll do away with them soon enough if our sprawl continues the way it is.

The density "sweetspot" may not have to equal Manhattan, but after comparing the way Manhattan prizes space the way it does (evidenced in the take on luxury offered by OMA's Prada store), as compared to the way we don't in the west, I say the closer to Manhattan density, the better.

We as yet don't value space, or resources for that matter, in the west because we haven't felt the need yet, the squeeze of necessity. I don't want to wait till we've run out of space and nature before it means anything to us. Give me Manhattanization please, so I can enjoy nature before it's all asphalted under and converted into suburban purgatory.

Melissa and Kyle said...

Thiis is a great post