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Excerpt: 'Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability'

NOTE: The footnotes from this excerpt have been removed.

The history of civilization is a chronicle of destruction: people arrive, eat anything slow enough to catch, supplant indigenous flora with species bred for exploitation, burn whatever can be burned, and move on or spread out. No sensitive modern human can contemplate that history without a shudder. Everywhere we look, we see evidence of our recklessness, as well as signs that our destructive reach is growing. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is no longer the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, 175 miles away. Tap water in metropolitan Washington, D.C., has been found to contain trace amounts of caffeine, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, two antibiotics, an anticonvulsive drug used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, and the antibacterial compound triclocarban, which is an ingredient of household soaps and cleaning agents. Modern interest in environmentalism is driven by a yearning to protect what we haven't ruined already, to conserve what we haven't used up, to restore as much as possible of what we've destroyed, and to devise ways of reconfiguring our lives so that civilization as we know it can be sustained through our children's lifetimes and beyond.

To the great majority of Americans who share these concerns, densely populated cities look like the end of the world. Because such places concentrate high levels of human activity, they seem to manifest nearly every distressing symptom of the headlong growth of civilization — the smoke, the filth, the crowds, the cars — and we therefore tend to think of them as environmental crisis zones. Calculated by the square foot, New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than any other American region of comparable size. On a map depicting negative environmental impacts in relation to surface area, therefore, Manhattan would look like an intense hot spot, surrounded, at varying distances, by belts of deepening green.

But this way of thinking obscures a profound environmental truth, because if you plotted the same negative impacts by resident or by household the color scheme would be reversed. New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption. Most important, the city's unusually high concentration of population enables the majority of residents to live without automobiles — an unthinkable deprivation almost anywhere else in the United States, other than in a few comparably dense American urban cores, such as the central parts of San Francisco and Boston. The scarcity of parking spaces in New York, along with the frozen snarl of traffic on heavily traveled streets, makes car ownership an unbearable burden for most, while the compactness of development, the fertile mix of commercial and residential uses, and the availability of public transportation make automobile ownership all but unnecessary in most of the city. A pedestrian crossing Canal Street at rush hour can get the impression that New York is the home of every car ever built, but Manhattan actually has the lowest car-to-resident ratio of anyplace in America.

From Green Metropolis by David Owen. Copyright (c) 2009 by David Owen. Published by Riverhead Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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David Owen