Friday, October 15, 2004

How Green is my Metropolis

Having recently broadened my home search outside of Central Philadelphia to include the Jersey suburbs -- a development about which I'm more than a little ambivalent -- I was fascinated to read David Owen's article "Green Manhattan" in this week's New Yorker (lamentably, it's print-only). Here Owen -- a New Yorker staff writer and (apparently) recent author of a history of the Xerox machine -- argues that while big cities may not be pretty, per capita, they're more eco-friendly than any rural community founded by sprout-eating utopians.

I've always been fascinated by skyscrapers, or high buildings of any kind. From the nineteenth century until the advent of the internet, the skyscraper is the most efficient way to organize people, and especially information, anytime that physical proximity is at a premium -- and for most of our industrial history, it has been. But once companies deal almost totally in information, and once that information can be transmitted electronically (by telephone, fax, and internet), the skyscraper becomes obsolete, along with the principle of centralization that led to its development. Your company doesn't need to be in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco: you can relocate to pole-barn campuses outside of Phoenix, Denver, and Wilmington and everyone can be a lot happier. (Well, except the folks in Wilmington.)

Or does it? Some of Owen's best moments come when he explains how tall, narrow buildings are inherently more energy-efficient than low, sprawling ones:

Tall buildings have much less exposed exterior surface per square foot of interior space than smaller buildings do, and that means they present relatively less of themselves to the elements, and their small roofs absorb less heat from the sun during cooling season and radiate less heat from inside during heating season. (The beneficial effects are greater still in Manhattan, where one building often directly abuts another.)


One reason New Yorkers are the most dedicated [mass] transit users in America is that congestion on the city's streets make driving extraordinarily disagreeable. The average speed of crosstown traffic in Manhattan is little more than that of a brisk walker, and in midtown at certain times of the day the cars on the side streets move so slowly that they appear almost to b parked. Congestion like that urges drivers into the subways, and it makes life easier for pedestrians and bicycle riders by slowing cars to a point where they constitute less of a physical threat.

So what's Owen's solution to traffic jams? Instead of extending current mass transit lines outside of the city center (which only encourages more people to move farther away) or worse, adding expressways and widening existing traffic lanes (which only encourages more people to drive), you should gradually eliminate traffic lanes and parking spaces -- which would provide incentives for people to move downtown and give up their cars. (Or reject cities altogether. You can tell that Owen's neither a politician nor on the tourist board.)

Still, however, Owen's right on when he points out that even what most environmentally conscious Americans do to help is a symbolic gesture at best. "Recycling is popular because it enables people to relieve their gathering anxieties about the future without altering the way they live." Instead of eating organic and fighting to the death to preserve out-of-the-way green spaces, environmentalists really need to get hip to the energy crisis and move to the city. It's not pretty, but it's the best chance we've got.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

What would we do without the New Yorker?