The New Yorker's David Owen: Why Manhattan is America's greenest community

December 08, 2009 |

BD+C: Why are you such a big advocate of density?

David Owen: Almost 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions in New York City come from buildings, but it’s actually a sign of environmental success when that building percentage is high. We should be trying to make buildings the bigger contributor to greenhouse gases, because that means we have squeezed down the transportation side of that equation. When you get everyone walking instead of driving, the building proportion would be close to 100%.

There are buildings—4 Times Square, for example—that deserve the highest laurels of green, just because they contribute to the density of the city.

BD+C: You write that “a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer.” Please explain.

DO: Almost always when we talk about the environmental impact of cars, the solution is either to make driving cheaper—more fuel efficient—or to make it more pleasant, by reducing traffic jams. The major damage that cars have done is not at the tailpipe, it’s what mobility makes possible—sprawl; big, overfertilized, overwatered lawns; strip malls; corporate campuses and industrial parks that push us farther and farther out. The big energy drain isn’t the Hummer in the driveway, it’s the driveway itself.

BD+C: You chair your town’s planning commission, but you’re not crazy about zoning, are you?

DO: People who are concerned about towns and cities see zoning as a protection that they want to guard, even though zoning requirements often don’t do that. Our little New England town has this charming village center, with buildings close together, almost touching, few parking places, no setbacks— in almost every way, these things would be a violation of our current zoning regulations, but people love it. The town right next to ours is a sprawling disaster area, and the operating hypothesis is that their regulations are not adequate, but their sprawl is an outcome of their regulations.

BD+C: You’re critical of LEED, too. Why?

DO: I’ve got a builder friend who’s getting his LEED accreditation, and he says it’s all b.s., but for business reasons he’s got to have this acronym trailing his name. I’ve heard from architects who have told me there’s no alternative, you do LEED or you’re not in that segment of the market. I live near the first LEED Platinum house in Connecticut, and it’s at least $500 a square foot, on 13 acres of farmland, five miles from the nearest supermarket, so the owners have to drive everywhere.

All this reinforces the idea that green is a super-luxury item, a complex, high-tech tool that costs a lot of money to apply, and it just steps over all the small simple things that have a much better payback than putting argon in the windows—insulation, efficient lighting, the right size and kind of windows, and building smaller. Building smaller is underrated as an environmental tool.

BD+C: You state that “the power we don’t use is more important than the power we do.”

DO: That’s the wonderful low-tech solution. Rather than making these huge investments in fuel cells, or windmills on the roof of buildings, it costs much less to do the simple things that drive energy costs down. Many of the high-tech ideas you’re always hearing about are coming from venture capitalists or someone who’s making claims that are hard to substantiate. There are so many good low-tech solutions that we don’t make enough use of.

BD+C: Do you think environmentalists understand your point about density?

DO: The big environmental issues are not the kinds of things that win LEED points, like using carpets from recycled fiber. They’re things like the education system, local air quality, noise levels, when the garbage trucks pick up the trash, things like that—quality of life issues.

It’s too bad that environmentalists haven’t looked at some of the world environmental problems from that perspective. They want to protect places by building fences around them, but what preserved the Catskills and the Adirondacks was New York City’s density, which  allowed those areas to be preserved. Environmentalists haven’t seen urban density as a tool. We should be looking at how to concentrate populations, so that we don’t have them intrude on the places that we don’t want to ruin.

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