Sunday, March 30, 2014

New York City: The Big Green Apple?

By Jonathan Mallon

For another class, I read a book entitled Green Metropolis by David Owen.  The subtitle of the book explained his purpose: “why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability.”  He also discussed why New York City was a fine example of practical energy efficiency, which was an interesting thesis (if not a little bold) to what amounted to a 324-page essay divided into chapters.

I’m not a big book reader, as long winded fiction and non-fiction doesn’t hold me like an essay or short article does, but I found myself both agreeing in some fascination with some of his information. I was also frustrated in disagreement over other information he presented, despite his mathematical reasoning.

Within the first chapter, Owen explained how New York is as green as other environmentally friendly cities, such as Portland, Oregon, and did it convincingly.  He explained that residents of the city individually used less energy and produced less pollution than when the area of the city was calculated by square feet.  One such way city residents did so was through the large use of public transportation and through the relatively smaller population of cars, which he (understandably) explained in future chapters as a cause of people wanting to move away from the city and what he called “sprawl,” both by people and non-compact suburban building development. 

Among other information presented that fit with his subtitle’s purpose, I agreed with this, mostly because it’s been documented (and it’s common sense) that when more people drive, even using the most energy-efficient vehicle and regardless of the distance, more harmful emissions are put into the environment.

However, there were some things I didn’t fully agree with Owen on.  Towards the end of his book, he discussed a non-profit organization’s program called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and how builders primarily built buildings that were supposed to be sustainable (with their materials, architecture, and/or technology) for the incentives LEED provided.  He also explained in another chapter how locavorism (eating locally-grown food) may not be completely sustainable, as some food from farther-away places may use less energy to grow and transport than in some local places.

While I found this information interesting, I kept thinking of one critical factor; not every place can be like the city, nor should it.  Yes, Owen discussed how outward expansion hurts the environment more than rising, compact infrastructures with multiple uses (apartments, office buildings, and little markets and food places below), and he also explained how the suburban use of cars was also detrimental to the environment, even the more energy efficient cars, but he didn’t realize that city life isn’t for everybody.  There are plenty of people who can’t live in an enclosed area like some parts of the city, hence the suburbs are the alternative. 

The environmental architecture he referred to as being based out of “LEED brain” may be more of a step in the right direction, despite the unnecessary large space the people he mentioned built.  Also, energy efficient cars may also be just another step, eventually leading the way to electric cars that while they’d create an overreliance on coal (which produces more emissions than gas), could be another step in the direction to more sustainable transportation outside of public transit.

Owen’s ideas are thought provoking, but in my opinion, not every place can be NYC.

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