In a little more than three decades, the world's population is forecast to reach nine billion. For every three inhabitants of today's planet, there will be one more. How are nine billion people supposed to feed, clothe and shelter themselves peaceably on this Earth?
David Owen suggests that a livable future needs more places like Manhattan, where more than 70,000 people live per square mile, sharing walls, sidewalks and parks, and where feet are the most common form of conveyance. It's a land of density, diversity and large-scale efficiency, and a far cry from our reigning ethos of independence and self-sufficiency, going back to the land and even off the grid -- part of a deeply anti-urban American ethos handed down from the days when Henry David Thoreau mused beside Walden Pond.
"Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability" (Riverhead Books) not only sells the ecological virtues of big-city life, but points out the blind spots of the new "sustainable" consumerism. Rooftop solar panels and local foods are balms to our conscience, not keys to our collective salvation, and the arcadian ideal that conflates rural life with purity has got to go, suggests Owen: We have got to get ourselves not back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell urged the Woodstock generation, but into a high-rise.
Owen discusses his book next Thurs., Oct. 8 at Town Hall at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to townhallseattle.org.
In your book you quote Henry Ford saying, "We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the city. Get people into the country... where there's a commonality of interest, where life is not artificial."
And it's not an evil thing to believe. We all sort of feel that way. But its environmental consequences are now becoming clear to us, and it's much harder to undo than it was to do. Spreading out was easier than contracting will be.
Do you see a sign of a different dense aesthetic cropping up in Kansas City, Phoenix, or other sprawling cities?
I think there's some. You hear people of my generation -- the Baby Boom generation -- now suddenly, once the kids go off to college, the big yards don't seem as attractive as they did. I'm the chairman of my town's zoning commission, and in the past couple of years we have lots of middle-aged people coming in saying, "We're tired of cutting our grass, we want more multi-family housing."
When people rediscover the central cities, aren't they displacing people who are already there? Like the Bowery for example, or Harlem.
Yeah, I think that's a huge issue. It was called white flight when it took place in the other direction. And if we suddenly do the same thing in reverse it has the same harmful economic and social consequences. But I have no idea what the answer to that is.
In the crisis that we're still going through -- the foreclosure crisis -- the hardest hit places are often the far-flung suburbs, the sort of "drive until you qualify" subdivisions in which the houses have been abandoned or are occupied by squatters. It's like the inverse of the old problem.
Seattle is a bit like Manhattan, bounded on two sides by water, and its land area is relatively small, but we have an enormous amount of land zoned for single family homes. What sort of land use changes should eco-conscious Seattleites campaign for?
To get people walking and to make public transport feasible and to shorten trips, you also have to mix up the commercial and the residential. The reason that you can live in downtown Seattle, or San Francisco, or Manhattan without a car is that you can get around not only by public transport but just on foot. Everything's all mixed up together.
You write that when we think about a dense city as an ecological benefit, police and public schools become ecological issues -- or at least that they ought to be taken as such.
A way to see it is to think: if it is environmentally desirable for us to densify urban cores, whatever makes people want to live there is an environmental issue. You have to think: Why do people move away? What propels people into the suburbs? All those things then become environmental issues.
It seems also that housing affordability would be an environmental issue in these terms.
Yes it is. And it's hard to get people to think about it now rationally. That very issue. People often talk about how very expensive it is to live in the central city. My daughter lives in Manhattan right now, her apartment is extremely expensive. She could live in a much bigger apartment in Kansas city or in the little town where I live. But in neither of those places could she do what she does in Manhattan, which is to live without a car. The direct and indirect cost of their driving is a very fuzzy cost and they don't really think about it rationally.
The other half of your question, I assume, is the cost for people for whom cost is a major issue. New York City seemed to my wife and I to be a good place to be either rich or poor; it was a tough place in between. If you are at the lower end of the income scale, there's a huge advantage to living somewhere where you can get around on foot.
What's wrong with solar panels? Why not have major city initiatives to install solar panels on single family residences rooftops across Seattle?
If it becomes a way to make palatable a way of arranging people that doesn't work for other reasons, then it's not a good thing to do. In the same way that we can't really assess the true cost of driving, it's difficult to assess the true environmental costs and benefits of something like solar panels on the roof of a suburban house.
In my neighborhood if you saw somebody with solar panels on his roof, what he would really be saying is, "Hey, my neighbor pays my electric bill," because he got a huge subsidy to put them on. The cost of buying them and installing them was heavily supported by other utility customers. If he is able to sell his excess electricity back to the utility, much of the time he is selling it back at a time when the utility can't actually use it, just because of the way we generate and consume electricity. The time when solar panels are generating the most current is not necessarily the time when electric systems are in need of extra power. It's not like oil, you can't just move it from one bucket to the other.
In the meantime you've made him think "My electricity is now free!" What's the incentive, then, to use less of it? All you've done is make it easier for that person to justify living in a way that is inherently inefficient.
Things like wind and solar are the things that are most likely to contribute where you can concentrate them, generate large amounts of electricity in places where it's most efficient to generate it, do that in a concentrated way and then use it, and add it to the grid, and charge people for it. I think that tends to work better. The notion of distributed generation is a way to move people farther apart.
You also mention Summer Streets, New York's policy of closing off streets for a day, which the mayor of Seattle did as well. What's wrong with that?
The point I was trying to make there is that the best course for a city is to have a transportation system in which all of these elements work together. You want people riding bikes, you want people walking. There are always going to be vehicles moving around. You want them all to work together.
One of the dangers of either separating these traffic streams -- we'll isolate all the people driving over here, we'll isolate all the people walking over here -- is that you lose some of the benefits that arise from having them in each other's way. New York City is so easy to walk around because car traffic moves so unbelievably slowly. In many cases slower than a person can walk. It looks like an environmental problem because the cars are just idling there, spewing exhaust, but it's actually a great benefit because it makes walking possible. If
I'm walking 20 blocks I know that I can easily cut through traffic, because even if the cars hit me it wouldn't hurt.
There's nothing wrong with closing off Park Avenue and turning it into a bicycle speedway, but I think that the big benefits come from thinking of this whole organism and moving people around, and you want to gradually reduce the space that's available for cars without making it any easier for those cars to get around.
Why isn't locavorism green?
The difficulty with locavorism is the energy argument. The idea that simply measuring the miles between where something's grown and where it's consumed, and that that tells you everything you need to know, is demonstrably wrong. Far more important is what were the energy and other inputs that went into that thing that you're eating, where it was grown, and then how did it get to where you are, what was traveling with it.
I've eaten raspberries from 2,000 miles away, I've also eaten raspberries from a farm a couple of towns away, and I much prefer the ones from the farm. But I can assure you that their carbon footprint is much larger than the ones from California. Because the local berries got to me in my own car, where the only other freight was my wife and me. We drove an hour there and an hour back. If you divide the fuel that we consumed by the number of berries that we came home with, it would be an absurdly high number. We were raspberry locavores that day, but the environment didn't come out ahead.
I think that the weakness in locavorism as a principle is easy to see if you turn to the other things that we consume: If you decided that you were only going to drive hybrid cars that are manufactured within 40-100 miles of where we live. It doesn't make any sense to break up the manufacture of automobiles into these tiny, inefficient units and spread them around the country just so that we don't have to ship the cars over long distance. It's much more efficient to manufacture them in a place where we can manufacture them efficiently and transport them than to do it on a kind of village scale.
It seems like the pressing environmental issue we're facing is too many people consuming too much. What happened to the idea of population control?
People don't talk about it very much. It's tough for conservatives because it's about sex and birth control, and it's tough for liberals because it's inevitably, in this country at least, mixed up with immigration. So it seems to be kind of a hands-off issue. And I think also there's a sort of perception that people have been crying wolf about population since the time of Malthus [in the early 1800s]. But it's sort of staggering to think of what the population of the world is now and what it's projected to be in a virtual eye-blink of three decades.
I guess one positive is that over the past few decades the movement of human populations has been towards cities away from the country. That generally is a good thing for the environment and for people in general: urban dwellers tend to have smaller families than rural dwellers, and the main reason is that the economic utility of the next child is smaller in the city than it is in the country. Still, we haven't shown any success in sustaining our current level of habitation of the earth; there are no obvious tricks up anybody's sleeve to help us handle another three billion.