Green Metropolis

I've decided to spend 2011 reading only 19th century novels and apocalyptic nonfiction. The consensus from both corners: nobody was happy in the past and nobody will be happy in the future. I guess if this is news to you, you'll have to cancel some plans. The other news is that according to David Owen's Green Metropolis, my city's way greener than yours, by approximately one million billion percent:

Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. In fact, by the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States. The most devastating damage that humans have done to the environment has arisen from the burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric by comparison with other Americans, including people who live in rural areas or in such putatively eco-friendly cities as Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Thanks to New York City, the average resident of New York State uses less gasoline than the average resident of any other state, and uses less than half as much as the average resident of Wyoming. Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per capita energy use, not only because New Yorkers drive less but because city dwellings are smaller than other American dwellings and are less likely to contain a superfluity of large appliances. 


Manhattan's density is approximately 67,000 people per square mile, or more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole and roughly thirty times that of Los Angeles. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, enables most of them to get by without owning cars, encourages them to keep their families small, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into.

Hah! Meanwhile, out in the heartland, all you earth-loving, Prius-driving, Whole-Foods-shopping chumps are KILLING US. Okay, that's not quite fair, I shop at Whole Foods, too (great ketchup!), but still:

Every new outlying subdivision, every new corporate campus, every new shopping mall has pulled the city's mantle of infrastructure further from the core, and, in doing so, has hugely increased duplication and waste, along with per-capita energy consumption and the production of pollutants, including greenhouse gases. And all of that low-density growth has been driven and sustained by cars.

The energy inefficiency of individual automobiles, in other words, is a far less important environmental issue than the energy inefficiency of the asphalt-latticed way of life that we have built to oblige them—the sprawling American landscape of subdivisions, parking lots, strip malls, and interstate bypasses. The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway: it's everything the Hummer makes possible—the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes. Suburbanites who trade down from an SUV to a hybrid may cut their personal automotive fuel consumption by half or two-thirds, but they have done nothing to address the far more fundamental and intractable environmental problem, which is that automobiles have enabled us to create a way of life that cannot be sustained without automobiles.

My monthly electricity bill during the winter averages $45, and during the summer that goes up to about $80 since, as an American, I reserve the right to run my air conditioner nonstop. My bank, grocery store, drugstore, coffee shop and wine shop (!) are all within a two-block radius of my apartment, and both of my feet work most of the time. When for some reason they don't, the subway and two bus stops are a mere half block away. My unlimited ride monthly transit bill, which includes both subway and bus, is $104. Car payments, insurance, repairs, parking, gasoline: a big fat beautiful ever-lovin' $0. Which is why I spend all my money on shoes.

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