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Bright Green Mega-City
Emily Gertz, 17 Oct 04

David Owen writes a love song to the environmental cred of New York City in the October 18, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. I'd call it required reading for Worldchangers--but it's not online, so get thee to the library or magazine stand.

When I was planning to move back east from Oregon in 1999, most friends wondered how I could do it after nine years in Ecotopia. One said she could never live in the east because she liked "big weather," and that stood in for everything big and natural in the Pacific Northwest.

Truthfully, after obsessing on the Pacific Northwest for half a lifetime (I'd begun reading Ursula K. Le Guin at an impressionable age), and figuring I'd gone to environmentalist heaven on earth once I got there, ecological virtues were not high on my list of the gains to be made by moving Back East. Proximity to family, diverse art, new music, and (at the time) a hopping job market--plus the comfort of slipping on an old skin after being an expat--those were the goals.

I do miss seeing Mount Hood on the horizon beyond the Hawthorne Bridge, and New York City lacks some qualities of life that I liked a lot out west, like QUIET. But we've got big weather here--nearly every hurricane that hits Florida ends up being a torrential rainstorm in the northeast within a week of North American landfall, never mind the thunder and lightning. The mountains are old and worn, but Atlantic's just as vast as Pacific, and what's more, I can get to both by mass transit instead of renting a car. In fact, preservation of wilderness, biodiversity, and climate stability will likely rely more and more on humans congregating in concentrated, energy-efficient, mass-transit enabled mega-cities like this one.

As Owen describes it,

By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devatating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattenite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use...

When most Americans think about environmentalism, they picture wild, unspoiled landscapes--the earth before it was transmogrified by human habitation. New York City is one of the most thoroughly altered landscapes imaginable, an almost wholly artificial environment...[E]cology-minded discussions of New York City often have a hopeless tone, and focus on ways in which the city might be made to seem somewhat less oppressively man-made...[B]ut most such changes would actually undermine the city's extraordinary energy efficiency, which arises from the characteristics that make it surreally synthetic.

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Hear hear! True, scary as hell, yet who'll move to new york to save the planet, eh?

Perhaps a pleasant, "new urbanist" new york would be a different story...

Posted by: Vinay on 18 Oct 04

Hurray for cities. It always unnerves me when enviros here in SF where I live start to worry about the Manhattanhization of the city. Bring it on I say - I would prefer a few less suburbs.

Posted by: adrian cotter on 18 Oct 04

I would say New Urbanist and Green City are not really mutually inclusive, depending on the flavor of New Urbanism.

And anyway, we already have many of the hallmarks of a new urbanist community in NYC: human-scale architecture in the vast bulk of city neighborhoods. Easy access to parks, beaches, other amenities. Stoops, park benches for sitting out in the edge space between home and street (porches in some parts of town).

NYC can be a tiring and aggravating place (some friends and I joke about how much more we say, "I don't know how much more I can take" since moving here from Portland), but give me this over Celebration, any day.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 20 Oct 04



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