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Big-city lifestyle encourages sustainability

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David Owen

David Owen, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, says people who live in big cities like New York drive, pollute, consume and throw away less than people who live in suburbs and small towns.

Photo: Joshua Clark

Most Americans think of big cities as ecological nightmares — overflowing with garbage, diesel fumes and traffic jams.

And it’s true that New York, the largest U.S. city, generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy and produces more solid waste than any other region of comparable size.

But as individuals, said David Owen — a staff writer for The New Yorker and former Manhattan resident — New Yorkers drive, pollute, consume and throw away much less than residents of surrounding suburbs and small towns.

Owen, author of Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability spoke Nov. 1 at Student Center West for the Chancellor’s Lecture and Event Series.

“Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents get to work by public transit, by bicycle or on foot — 10 times the national average,” Owen said.

Manhattanites use 4,700 kilowatts of energy per year, compared with 16,000 kilowatts for Dallas residents, he added.

As for New York City as a whole, it’s more populous than all but 11 states. If granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.

Moreover, the average New Yorker generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, less than 30 percent of the national average, he said.

After living in Manhattan for seven years, Owen and his family moved to Connecticut and a house built in 1790.

“Our new life was an ecological disaster,” he said.

“One car wasn’t enough. We needed a second for when the first one was in the shop. I had a mild midlife crisis and bought a third car, which became a necessity when the kids started driving.”

In Manhattan, he said, the pediatrician’s office was in the lobby of his apartment building.

“Now our dentist is two towns away, a 32-mile round trip.”

Compactness is the secret to saving resources, Owen said.

New York City has 67,000 residents per square mile, 800 times the U.S. average, five times the Chicago average and 1,000 times the Vermont average.

“Apartment buildings are the most efficient residential structures on Earth,” he said.

And Manhattan is “one of the last places on Earth where walking is the main form of transportation,” Owen added.

Seventy-seven percent of households don’t have a car. In South Dakota, by contrast, 15 percent of households have five or more vehicles.

“In 2007, Forbes magazine chose Vermont as the greenest state,” Owen said.

“It has lots of forests, farms and backyard compost heaps. It’s also high in the proportion of LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] buildings.

“But this ranking is unfortunate.”

Vermont, he noted, has “no significant public transit” and is one of the states most heavily dependent on the automobile.

In fact, Vermonters burn 545 gallons of gasoline per year, 100 more gallons than the U.S. average.

Ecological felicity is sometimes a function of geography, forcing people to live closer together.

“Manhattan is on an island,” Owen noted. “The densest part of Chicago washes up against Lake Michigan.”

He finds people growing their own food to be “one of the most baffling trends,” like a woman he knows who raises chickens.

“She drives individual hens to the veterinarian, giving her hens a carbon footprint that is beyond calculation.”

As for energy efficiency, something that has been called “the fifth fuel,” it is easily accomplished, Owen said.

“Nearly every energy-using device is vastly more efficient than in years past,” he said.

“Yet my carbon footprint has grown to leverage an increase in my consumption.”

This phenomenon is known as the Jevons Paradox, named for 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons.

Herman Daly, economist at the University of Maryland, puts it in terms of frugality.

“Efficiency dissipates itself by making frugality seem unnecessary,” Owen said.

He got a laugh with his description of college campuses as being Manhattanlike in their use of resources.

“Undergrads walk to classes and often eat meals together that are prepared in bulk,” he said.

“And they engage in low energy-consuming activities such as philosophical discussions and having sex.”


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