In Manhattan with David Owen

Thanks to an invitation from the Christopher Reeve Foundation and the support of the Rick Hansen Institute Lynn and I headed out to Manhattan with a copy of David Owen’s new book Green Metropolis in hand. The Reeve Gala was spectacular thanks to Henry Stifel, Vice President of both the Christopher Reeve Foundation and Morgan Stanley Bank. It is not often we get to chat with Meryl Streep and get our picture in the New York Times.

After I had finished my duties we explored the streets of Manhattan and the ideas of David Owen. Owen is a staff writer with the New Yorker Magazine who scandalized many environmentalists by stating that the most environmentally sustainable place in North America is New York City. This is counter-intuitive to most people and it is only when you actually measure the real impact of people on the planet that you realize he is right. By every measure of environmental Impact per capita New Yorkers do less damage to the planet than anyone else on the continent — and by a long shot. It is not because they are more environmentally concerned that the rest of us. They are famous for being concerned with commerce, free-market and making money. I rather doubt New Yorkers spend much time at all worrying about the planet. There is only one reason they far exceed the rest of us in environmental stewardship and that is high density.

David Owen moved from Manhattan to a rural neighbourhood in Connecticut to get closer to the land and it was there that he had his key insight. His household consumption of electricity increased by six times. He went from not owning a car to driving 30,000 km a year mostly doing routine errands.

Although New York was the first North American city to have zoning regulations Manhattan had been so developed that the impact of them was marginal. Zoning typically forbids the mixing of land uses and keeps development spread out. Research has shown that the most important factor in supporting a healthy public transit system is high-density. Seven units per acre is the threshold at which transit starts to become possible.

Owen believes that investment in public transit can actually be bad for the environment if it encourages sprawl. In order for it to be good for the environment it must concentrate people in dense urban cores. Owen also asserts that a transit and pedestrian community is also a truck community. Trucks are a corollary of density getting much better efficiency from travel.

Owen notes that as population density increases so does transit use. As density increases beyond a certain level transit use flattens out. This is because people switch from transit to walking. Lynn and I often note how healthy people in Manhattan look. Statistics show that New Yorkers live nine months longer on average than other Americans. This appears to be because they do so much walking. The book makes a special note of our own Professor Lawrence Frank University of British Columbia and his studies showing the relationship between density and health.

Owen makes an interesting argument for big-box stores. He argues that the attraction is that there are no planners mandating setbacks and spacing. The inside of a big-box store and a shopping mall have high-density and are made for pedestrians and don’t have people trying to ‘protect’ them by ensuring they have to walk longer distances to get their needs met..

As Lynn and I noted almost everyone in New York Jay walks. As we approached an intersection I noted a police officer standing on the corner looking bored. I was shocked to see Lynn follow everyone else crossing the street on a red light. I dutifully stopped and waited for the light to change. The police officer looked perplexed and walked onto the road and waved impatiently for me to cross. In most cities police officers are there to stop jaywalking. In New York City they actually help you. Owen sees creative jaywalking as an environmental positive as it makes walking more efficient and car driving less efficient. The purpose of anti-jaywalking laws is not to protect pedestrians but to make life easier for drivers. I noted a sign trumpeting the fact that New York had one of the lowest levels of pedestrian fatalities in the US.

We were able to witness Mayor Bloomberg’s reconfiguration of Broadway by closing two of its four lanes to vehicle traffic and turning these over to pedestrians and bicyclists and street furniture.

Owen notes that the largest irrigated crop in the United States is cultivated grass that covers 32 million acres in the US. The second largest irrigated crop is corn that takes up 10 million acres. $40 billion a year and 100 million pounds of pesticides and a third of all residential water go into maintaining American grass. ‘The modern suburban yard is perfectly, and perversely, self-justifying: its purpose is to be taken care of’.

Owen notes another environmental benefit of high density. It is the lack of free storage space. Large suburban houses become storage spaces for the indecisive. By having limited storage and being required to pay extra to rent additional space there is a penalty to pay for over-consumption.

Owen makes a difference between embodied energy and embodied efficiency. Embodied energy refers to the energy required to actually build the building. Embodied efficiency refers to the energy use implied by the building and in its context.

Owen has interesting things to say about LEED. It has a credit category that might be thought of as a sprawl reward for building on only a part of the building site. 10 points are given to projects that use indigenous planting on the landscape. This is unavailable to high-density projects in the inner core. He refers to a phenomenon called ‘LEED brain’, which refers to a mindset that values PR benefits of certification over helping the environment. Because LEED is developed by the industry Green Building Council it tends to favour high cost complex solutions over common sense. LEED has helped to foster the widely held impression that reducing the environmental impact of human living spaces is largely a matter of buying more fancy stuff.

An R-value refers to the insulation of different materials. Whereas a foot thick layer of fibreglass has an R value of 38 and 5 1/2 inch fiberglass insulation wood siding has an R.value of 21. Window glass has an R value of between 2 and 5. Since the higher the R-value the better the environmental performance even the most high tech window performs very poorly.

Owen is skeptical of the goal of decentralizing power production. He notes that most small-scale non-grid energy production in the United States uses a lot of diesel power. ‘Large generating plants are inherently more efficient than small generators; they also do less damage to the environment per unit of output, since fitting plants with best available control technology can be financially feasible on a large-scale, but not on a small scale’

Despite the strong economic growth of Asia the average Chinese consumes 9% of the oil consumed by the average North American. The bad example we set for the rest of the world is a great threat to all of us. Most current recycling has at best a neutral effect on the environment. Most of the materials are merely downcycled or converted to a lower use, providing a pause on the journey to the landfill.

When North Americans think about going green, they tend to focus on enhancements to their own consumption rather than on subtractions from it. Owen takes on locavorism or the favoring of locally grown food. He concludes that transporting food long distances can be environmentally better than the local alternative. The environmental cost per unit of food must be calculated. He especially laments aid programs that encourage agriculture in countries that have water shortages.

David Owen is an iconoclast and contrarian. But he has made an important contribution to thinking about cities by identifying high density as one of the most profound improvements that can be made to support our environment.


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