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Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability Hardcover – 17 Sep 2009

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 357 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (17 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781594488825
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594488825
  • ASIN: 1594488827
  • Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 3 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 624,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


A convincing case...Pugnacious and contrarian (The New York Times)

Turns conventional wisdom on its head and takes a clear-eyed look at what 'green' might truly mean (San Francisco Chronicle) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a dozen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman, and their two children. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
David Owen explodes the myths, fantasies and downright frauds that are often perpetrated as examples of "sustainable design". His core thesis is that if Americans really want to reduce their impact on the planet, they need to live closer together, in places more like Manhattan, which is his "Green Metropolis". To most eyes, New York doesn't look very green, but he shows that it is, because people live in apartments that are inherently easier to heat than houses, and mostly walk or use transit. Building a detached house out in the middle of the countryside, putting in lots of insulation, a windmill and solar collector on the roof, and growing your own vegetables sounds greener, but alls is for nought if you need to rely entirely on car transport. Much more important to live where you can, and will, walk to shops, to schools, and bike or ride transit to work. He covers a wide territory, including electric cars, locally sourced foods, "green" buildings, recycling, biofuels, traffic control, and also comments on urbanisation in China and Dubai. He is particularly perceptive on how to build environments that are convenient, safe, interesting and even fun to walk through, and why even traffic regulations are often counter-productive. His writing is of the quality one would expect from a New Yorker staff writer (he is one). But the quality of the analysis, and the footnoted sources, result in a work that could hold its own in many a scientific journal.

What's missing? More constructive suggestions of what we should be doing. Owen himself admits to moving out of Manhattan to raise his children, and now lives in car-dependent exurbia. He recognises the need for financial incentives; higher fuel taxes would be a start.
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By Xin Ying Wong on 17 Mar 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent book!! Was first captivated by Owen's New Yorker article on Green Manhattan, and this is a great extension of it.
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By K. Friedman on 10 Oct 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading this book was inspirational. As a staunch urbanist, I found myself cheering in my head as I read many sections of this book. The book is written in a more journalistic/less academic way which will make it an easier read. There is so much in this book that I'll simply touch on some of the parts I found the most interesting.

There was a very good discussion about the efficiency of urban living. In particular discussion about New York's GHG emissions inventory and how it can be misinterpreted. As a follow up note to this, it's interesting to check on the subsequent annual inventories produced by the city to see how they have been improving their emissions- but I digress.

I was very taken with the discussion of 'urban cars'. From 'free parking' where real estate is some of the most expensive in the world, to congestion charging, to the idea that compact cars will simply get more urban dwellers into cars, there was a lot of good stuff to digest here.

Of course no book is perfect. As much as I loved this book, there were a couple of instances where I felt it pushed too hard to make a point, and so the point was weak. In particular, there seemed to be a real bias against local farming but I thought this was not well presented. Of course if individuals in cars go to 'pick their own' it might rack up more transport miles. However, if local farmers supply local restaurants, or come in to cities for local markets (which is much more my own experience with local farming as I am an urban dweller without a car) then I think there is merit to the local farming issue, not to mention pushing for urban allotments or more windowsill/rooftop growing- I can't possibly see anything wrong with that.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 57 reviews
53 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Maybe if we paint the grass green... you know, with low VOC paint... 31 July 2009
By Brian Connors - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
You have to read this book carefully, since at first glance it reads like a gigantic love letter to New York City, with the heart in "I (heart) NY" recolored green. And if you do read it that way, you're going to miss the point of what the author is saying.

The problem with green thinking is that there's a whole heck of a lot of self-delusion going on, and when it comes to urban planning, David Owen has done a lot of looking into it, pointing out that at the end of the day, a lot of "green" purchases and behaviors are attempts to rationalize consumption without actually reducing it. Along the way, he steps on the toes of the great pastoral myth of environmentalism by showing how anti-city bias in conservation thinking has often served to promote the very urban sprawl it's supposed to be fighting. And Owen is hardly a global warming denialist or ecology "skeptic" either -- in fact, the primary focus of the book is on managing carbon footprints and just how poorly that's done.

Owen's dirty little secret is something urban planners and ecological experts have been promoting for years with little heed from the general public -- that the density of cities like New York is key to creating a low-consumption environment, since distances between home, work, and other activities are relatively small and therefore cars are generally unnecessary. Owen looks at carbon footprint in per capita terms, showing how the average New Yorker uses something like one third of the total oil consumption of a rural Vermonter, and points out the absurdity of building a "green" corporate campus (his prime example being Sprint/Nextel's in Kansas) so far away from a city that virtually all employees have to drive to work. He even goes as far as to attack the locavore movement, noting that because of the ability to pool resources (i.e. load lots of produce onto one big truck), a container of raspberries going from California to NYC can have a smaller carbon footprint than the same container grown in upstate New York.

Now the book isn't perfect -- Owen leaves a lot of loose ends and really doesn't do a lot of theorizing about solutions beyond the broad templates he outlines about transit-heavy city life, and his dislike of urban agriculture of the sort proposed by futurists seems rather inflexible and underinformed; his points about excessive open space (particularly Central Park, which he finds oversized and underutilized) are sensible in terms of walkability, but urban agriculture as such is still in its infancy. He seems to avoid the issue of concentrated air pollution in urban settings, a curious omission when dealing with urban environmental matters. (And, most curiously, Owen doesn't seem to offer any opinions on the works of Paolo Solieri, the creator of the concept of the arcology and seemingly one of the most relevant of all architects to his point, although Frank Lloyd Wright comes in for a drubbing due to his unrelenting support of suburban expansion.) But the book shines at pointing out the absurdities of the modern environmental movement (in the process tending to prove a theory I've long held about the environment/ecology section at bookstores, that the signal to noise ratio is heavily tilted in favor of noise from both sides) and functions as a call to the environmental movement to stop seeing urban life as the enemy.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Live Simply, so that Others Might Live 20 Aug 2009
By Adam Rust - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This was a pleasant surprise.
When I read the first chapter of Green Metropolis, I was worried that my fears about this book might be confirmed. After all, the blurb says that the author is going to reveal how New York City is more sustainable than Snowmass, Colorado or Burlington, Vermont. Hmm, I thought, there's not much to that. People in NYC don't drive cars, they live on top and side-by-side of each other (so they share heating costs), and they have great transit. Why should any readers find it surprising that NYC is so sustainable?

I was kind of impatient, I suppose. I remember sitting in a hotel near the campus of Sprint, on about 110th St and Metcalf in Kansas City, Missouri (a national epicenter of sprawl!) and telling my sister that its not enough to say NYC is the ideal for sustainability. You can't turn this into Greenwich Village, right? In other words, that kind of insight is lacking because it offers no value for what policy should do about the problem of sprawl.

Moreover, I thought, why is David Owen singing the praises of NYC, when he moved from there to rural Northwestern Connecticut?

Owen must have known that, because this book seems to understand that its not enough to laud NYC. What this book does it go step-by-step through many of planning's existing antidotes to sprawl and reveal their limitations. This is a book about challenging the assumptions that govern current sustainability policy.

The problem, he says, is that New York was built not by policy makers with the right vision, but by lucky timing. It was good timing because most of the city was laid out before the car. What is even more important to realize, he says, is that it was only because of the inability of planners to exert their will upon NYC's urban form that it turned out so well. The best efforts of man didn't foul things up. Although zoning laws and modern planning had begun to take root as early as the 20s, professional planners didn't realize their will on NYC. Too many land decisions were already predetermined before zoning could force segregated land uses. New York succeeded in spite of the best intentions of policy.

Moreover, NYC continues to succeed mostly due to forces that are beyond the decision-making of consumers and policy makers. People choose transit because they don't have a better option. Given the choice, many New Yorkers might drive Smart ForTwo cars if they were available. Sure, there would be more fuel efficient cars on the road - but there would then be fewer walkers.

Owens works over so many of the hot ideas in sustainability - from traffic calming, to congestion pricing, to LEED, to HOV lanes, to locavorism, to new urbanism - and shows how each produces unintended impacts that offset much if not all of their value. LEED, for example, is undermined by its focus on becoming green by adding extra features to buildings. It is a dream for a builder, but is it really sustainable to build a 4,000 square foot house even if it has bamboo cabinetry and argon windows? Wouldn't it be more sustainable, he suggests, to just live more simply?

The problem that undermines efforts to make Kansas City sustainable are in many ways the same problems, albeit on a larger scale, that make it hard to build sustainability on the household level. Current policy focuses on making a better "bad:" i.e., low sulfur coal, hybrid cars, bamboo flooring. What would be better would be to shift more to the "goods:" walking, biking, and generally consuming less.

Once a suburb has been developed and infrastructure has been invested and built to service that new "place," the die is cast. People can build a solar panel, but they are still going to be driving just as far from work to home. You can have a Prius, but you are still driving it on roads. It's the miles, not the mileage. Its the low-density development that prevents people from walking or biking.

For individuals, it is much the same: once a bad decision has been made, even trying to improve on a "bad," is limited. Owen does own that house that is 1 mile from the nearest commercial entity. He could move back to NYC, but then someone else would move into his home and consume on the same scale. If anything, he reasons, its better for a work-at-home person to inhabit this space.

I think he recognizes the value of using market forces and incentives to change travel plans, but he seems to argue that the labor-saving capacity of oil is rarely equalized by policy. Oil is just too efficient, it seems. You have to deny its use - rationing its use only makes the auto mode more efficient - thereby reducing the chance that congestion will send a strong enough signal to travelers that they should just ride a bike.

I haven't been satisfied with Michael Pollan because he seems to ignore some of the critiques against his ideas. I.E. - if I consume "local", do I have to give up coffee, gasoline, and most anything made with foreign minerals? How about the 2 or 3 billion who will be left to go hungry when we eliminate agriculture at scale? I have appreciated the ability of Bill McKibben to critique the problems of our current lifestyle. Then again, I am not sure he has spoken adequately about their solutions.

Upon reading Owen, I am left with a feeling of the nuances and tensions within many of the questions surrounding the sustainability of people and cities. I think this book has a place for the bookshelves of a policy maker or in the syllabi of some college planning courses. Riverhead Press says this is a book about the environment. Really, it is a book about urban planning. The author makes reference to Jane Jacobs, to Christopher Alexander, to Robert Moses, and to many of the nation's great land-use planners.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Five Stars...with Flaws 11 Dec 2009
By Joseph C. Huether - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Green Metropolis is an excellent thought provoking book and vividly highlights the disconnect between what the community perceives as being "green" and what truly is. I'll give this book 5 stars but would like to mention a few shortcomings.
I thought his criticisms of Central Park and Park Avenue were completely off the mark, dead wrong. One of biggest issues that, to my mind, haunts the thesis of this book is how to make dense urban living palatable and even desirable for a range of classes of people. Central Park was conceived at the very same time that New York was beginning to "experiment" with the large apartment building. Buildings such as the Dakota (1880) were designed specifically to lure well heeled city dwellers away from single family homes (townhouses) and into denser multi-story buildings with luxury space and services. (sound familiar?) Over the next 50 years many more even larger apartment buildings were built on both sides of the Park which was one of the most important ingredients in creating a DESIRABLE dense neighborhood. Far from being a built "criticism" of the dense city (as Owen may perceive it) Central Park was an enabler of density. As wonderful as Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village of the 40's was, most "upper east side" types probably didn't want to live there then, and they certainly didn't in 1908.
Similar points can be made about Park Avenue. I assume he is referring to that portion of Park Avenue above Grand Central Terminal. This urban boulevard was conceived as cure for the urban blight of the Harlem and New York Railroad tracks (it covered the tracks) as well as an armature for dense luxury apartment building development on both sides. Yes, the ground floors of those buildings may seem a bit sterile to Owen (and others including myself)but the buildings well heeled occupants probably like it that way and can find all the urban vitality they want a block away on Madison and Lexington avenues respectively. Sure, Park Avenue is an "edge" or border between two similar neighborhoods, but that's what boulevards are supposed to do in urban planning. Park Avenue isn't a "criticism" of dense cities. The tree lined boulevard is one component in a tool box for making high density possible. They help establishes scale and define precincts in large citys. They don't negatively impact density in any meaningful way. Owen seems to miss this point. Why did Owen bother to pick on these two NYC features in the first place. Didn't he already establish Manhattan as his "gold standard" in the first chapter?
Owen is needlessly harsh and dismissive with Washington DC. He draws far too many erroneous conclusions from the hotel desk clerk who advises him to catch a cab for a 4 block trip. Yes, the central Mall area of DC is very vast and spread out and bereft of urban amenities. Distances are farther than they look and the buildings are by design over scaled to work in that setting. But that is just one district and its flaws are not caused by axial boulevards per se but by misapplied land use concepts contained in DC's "City Beautiful" era Beaux-Arts McMillan Plan of 1901 which created a vast central "monumental core" area of monumental structures set in gardens. Neighborhoods like Foggy Bottom (near GW) and Dupont Circle, just to name two that are outside the McMillan Plan area, are dense, walkable and contain townhouses and 5 to 10 story apartment buildings and have plenty of street amenities. As for the oft-sited building height restriction in Washington the vast majority of Manhattan apartment buildings within Greenwich Village, above 75th street and within the boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn, would fit within Washington DC's height restrictions. Sure, Washington as a whole hasn't reached Manhattan levels of density but it's not Phoenix either.
I believe that these are but three examples of how late 19th century planners sought to make density palatable at a time when cities were even grimier and more dangerous than they are today. A close look at FL Olmstead's writings and city planning projects of the late 19th century reveals a man who actively grappled during the latter half of his life with the very same issue that haunts Green Metropolis, that is, how to get Americans to want or at least accept living in dense cities. Parker and Unwin grappled with these very same issues in England at the turn of the century.
Nevertheless, I belive the fundemental thesis of this book is sound and Owen gets it out for all to see and react to with wit and conviction. While I wasn't expecting Owen to pull some sort of "blueprint" for a Manhattan-like "city of the future" out of the bag by the end of the book, I was still left wondering...OK so what do we do now? When the President is advocating both "green economy" initiatives AND $8,000 first time home buyer tax credits in "drive til you quality" suburbs in the same speech you are left wondering if anyone in the country besides Owen really sees how absurd and contradictory this. In the end, weaning Americans off the short term economic engine and emotional attachment of single family housing production and automobile oriented development may be a lot harder than weaning Afghan farmers off opium poppies.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A Useful Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle, Masquerading as the Whole 15 April 2010
By P. J. Cafaro - Published on
Format: Hardcover
David Owen's new book is right on target in reminding us of the environmental benefits of high-density development. And I'm not just saying that because the book is a "love letter" (as another reviewer aptly puts it) to my home town: NYC.

Crowding people together makes mass transit easier, forces people to walk more and drive less, allows for scale efficiencies in energy and water use. It lowers per capita environmental impact. It also helps support certain kinds of high culture that are expensive or highly specialized.

However, crowding together in cities also cuts people off from wild nature, a real loss. Owen acknowledges this concern perfunctorily, referencing the recent book by Louv, "Last Child in the Woods," but goes on to assert:

"A sensitive person's first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans, especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be one of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor activities, . . . In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or for the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wilderness on TV than fly to it in an airplane and drive across it on a motorbike."

But environmentalism, to my mind, isn't just about limiting the human footprint; it is also about knowing, appreciating and celebrating wild nature. For me and my family, that doesn't mean flying thousands of miles to a pristine wilderness area, but hiking, birdwatching, fishing and skinnydipping in natural areas close to home. We couldn't do that in NYC, and that's why we don't live there, or in another big city.

Owen is right that density makes it easier to lower per capita environmental impact, which we need to do. But it also cuts us off from nature, which many of us refuse to do. And the world, or our country, would be a poor place, if it was all as densely populated as NYC.

The answer, I think, is that we need a variety of habitats, human as well as non human. We should have dense, urbane cities like NY; livable small towns like the town I live in now; rural areas; and wild lands, set aside primarily for all the other species with which we share the planet. That makes for interesting diversity and choices for us, and also shares resources fairly with other species.

To do this, however, we'll need to set some limits to human population growth. Toward the end of the book, Owen writes:

"A huge and often unmentioned issue underlying all our ongoing environmental problems is the issue of population. There are too many people in the world, and too many more are on the way. This is an issue that, in the United States, both conservatives and liberals have often seemed eager to avoid--for conservatives, perhaps, becuase it raises questions about family size, birth control, and abortion, and for liberals because it raises questions about immigration. Every one of the world's environmental problems is made worse by increases in the number of humans, and, most of all, by increases in the number of Americans, since U.S. residents--whether manufactured locally or imported from abroad--have the largest energy and carbon footprints in the world."

True enough! However, these insights aren't integrated into the rest of the book. This tends to leave the impression that really, the key to sustainability is to keep cramming more people together. The denser we get, the more sustainable we will be.

David Owen appears to know better, but I doubt his editors at the "New Yorker" (where he is a staff writer) will be asking him for an article on US population policies any time soon.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Challenges preconceptions about the meaning of green 3 Aug 2009
By Jason Stokes - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The author challenges a lot of notions about green - but ultimately falls flat when analyzing his own situation and the situation of others likes him, which deflates the argument he's been making all along and damages the strength of the book.

The author goes through many ways that a city, most specifically Manhattan, is much greener than the lifestyle most Americans enjoy. To sum it up - living in small spaces, where one can't accumulate much stuff, and taking mass transit to work is much greener than living in a spectacular house in the suburbs with every green amenity (turbines, water reclamation, etc.) available. The best parts of the book are his one by one dismissals of LEED features as impractical or just silly bureaucracy for most buildings. A large, sprawling corporate campus, like the Gap outside of San Francisco, can be hailed as a green mecca due to its renewable energy, etc. - but if they simply built in an office tower in San Francisco, it would be far greener. The comparisons and information included is thought provoking and has made me rethink the benefits of LEED and so-called green construction.

Unfortunately, his book has two problems - the first, well, there just aren't that many areas like Manhattan or San Francisco city for people to live in, and he doesn't suggest any real ways to promote developing and growing those areas. The second, bigger problem, alluded to previously - the author lives in an 18th century house in the middle of nowhere Connecticut. He lived in New York for years, but now does exactly what he excoriates others for doing. For all the talk of how wonderful the city is, he lives in an area more rural than most. His justification for this is essentially - he'd move back to New York, but someone else would just move to his house, so what's the big deal? Excuse me? Couldn't anyone use that justification for not living in the city?
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