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Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Cities, Skyscrapers and Energy

In the Oct. 18, 2004, issue of the New Yorker, David Owen published "Green Manhattan," the most sensible article about the environment that I've seen in a long time. Using the communities where he has lived as case studies, he praises walkable communities and bicycling and public transportation and low energy use. The paiece begins with some personal history.
My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naive and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn't have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car.
That community, we later learn, was Manhattan, or, to use Kurt Vonnegut's name for the place, Skyscraper National Park. The article goes on to describe the ways that New York City is environmentally friendly, even if the city seems like a huffing, puffing polluted and unnatural concrete jungle. Of course, he's right. While the environmental movement struggles to encourage people to drive fuel efficient cars, New Yorkers don't even need cars at all. Suburban sprawl is turning forests and farms into parking lots and strip malls, but we New Yorkers are building up into the sky, letting plants and animals keep their habitats while creating an ever more vibrant and exciting place to live and visit.

New Yorkers spend less energy per capita than anyone else in the nation, and a key reason for that is the skyscraper, which brings people together into densely charged units of economic productivity while encouraging them to take public transit and live at least somewhat nearby in land already taken for human use. Mr. Owen lists the attributes of a particularly environmentally sensitive one, 4 Times Square, seen at the far top left in the photo above: "collection chutes for recyclable materials, photovoltaic panels incorporated into parts of its skin, and curtain-wall construction with exceptional shading and insulating properties." But he concludes that these attributes would be penny wise but pound foolish if applied to a suburban office park.
The two greenest features of 4 Times Square are ones that most people never even mention: it is big, and it is situated in Manhattan. ... 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.)
Given this soaring endorsement of our model of urbanity, one might expect praise from James Howard Kunstler, the most withering and unrelenting of all the American critics of suburbia. He and Mr. Owen both have the same primary target of their criticism, suburbia, and they both are critical for the same reason. Further, they both chide Amory Lovins of the exurban Rocky Mountain Institute for misdirecting his pro-environmental energies toward fuel efficient cars and photovoltaics instead of promoting walkable communities.

But Owen and Kunstler diverge on their thinking about Manhattan as an appropriate form of settlement in an energy-scarce world. Despite New York City's obvious efficiencies, Kunstler, who is promoting his forthcoming book, recently told an interviewer that the prospects for New York City are dim in what he sees as a looming, permanent and enormous energy crisis. In his words,
We'll discover that our largest industrial cities will not work very well in an energy-scarce economy. New York and Chicago pose particular problems because they are so overburdened with skyscrapers, a building type that will soon be obsolete. As a general rule, our industrial cities have assumed a scale that is just unsustainable, and I believe will see a period of painful contraction. Many of these cities are already well advanced in that process: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, et cetera — the list is very long.
While he is prescient about many things, on this point, Kunstler is dead wrong. Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore would enjoy a resurgence in a future energy crunch because of the reasons outlined by David Owen. They are energy efficient. They were emptied out precisely because of the suburban expansion that is Kunstler's primary target and was fostered by the cheap oil extravaganza that he sees as running dry. These cities have declined, but it's because of an abundance of cheap oil, not a lack of it, and things may be changing. There may be a correlation between rising oil prices and increasing real estate values in most of these cities. Meanwhile, New York and Chicago will be saved by their skyscrapers, as corporations find that it's less costly and more productive to locate their offices in them. The seven cities Kunstler mentions experienced their growth when people traveled in horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. They'll grow again if motoring becomes all that hard.

- The Long Emergency [Excerpted in Rolling Stone]
- Global Warning [AlterNet]
- Posted at 9:21 PM | Permalink | Comments: 7 | Post a Comment |  

interesting points, AD. You know, I have the exact same set of questions. And I'm still not sure whose prediction is closer to reality, yours or Kunstler's. There's got to be a good way to sort of analyze this issue in a more objective way, run through scenarios and see what's up. I think you really probably have to include a lot of different factors before you can really draw a conclusion. The health of NYC, Chicago and the few other really sky-scraper dominant cities in the US are going to be impacted by a number of different factors.... Sometimes I feel optimistic about NYC's prospects. Other times, not so much.

By aaron, at 4/14/2005 10:40 AM  

But what about all of the energy it takes to transport goods in and out of a Manhattan?

By futurebird, at 4/14/2005 10:18 PM  

well... NYC still has great water and rail connections. it's located where it's located because it was a convenient place for the import and export of goods in the pre-industrial era. so, in some ways, nyc is in pretty good shape on the transpo front. that being said... we're not going to be getting grain from ohio via the erie canal and hudson river any time soon. i don't think they grow grain in ohio anymore. just vinyl houses...

By aaron, at 4/15/2005 9:09 AM  

We've got great rail and water transportation. If you're a food exporting region in an energy-scarce environment, you want to ship your food to the place where it's going to reach the most people for the least money, which would favor NYC. But if the energy is beyond scarce, if it's nonexistent, then you can't ship it anywhere, which is what Kunstler believes will happen. I don't think the transportation is going to be that impossible. Harder than it is now, yes, but not so hard that food has to be consumed within 50 miles of where it is produced.

By AD, at 4/15/2005 3:39 PM  

Cities like New York and Chicago undoubtedly use less energy per capita than Los Angeles or Houston, but they are still net importers of energy, materials and people, and they are very dependent on these imports. Skyscrapers, for example, are completely uninhabitable without electricity -- the elevators won't work, the water won't run, and the air will get stale very fast.

So, if society starts to fragment over energy shortages, or even if energy becomes really expensive, a city like New York is unsustainable. (Of course car-dependent sprawlburbs will have it even worse, but that's cold comfort.)

I can't speak for Kunstler (I haven't even read his new book), but my impression is that he would advocate communities that are much more compact and walkable than most of America, but less massive and concentrated than New York, and closer to the local farms that will be feeding us all (in his view).

I know that Kunstler is an advocate of New Urbanism, which advocates low-rise but compact development, and that he has nice things to say about European life. Europeans use less energy per capita than we do (probably even less per capita than New Yorkers, though I have no numbers to cite) and they seem to enjoy life more, so maybe he's on to something.

By Mitch, at 4/15/2005 7:49 PM  

Mitch, interesting points. I guess I feel that in an oil crunch, it would be the transportation sector that is most hurt because oil is disproportionately used in that activity. Electricity costs would increase as well, but by less than the increase in gasoline prices. So in my view, high gas costs would encourage people to move into cities. Energy costs would increase more in the suburbs than they would in the cities because, as David Owen and others have noted, it's less efficient to heat and cool a detached house than it is to heat and cool an apartment. I guess when it comes down to it, I think New Urbanism is a great thing, but "old urbanism" is even better.

And your point on stale air in skyscrapers is well raised. But the skycraper pre-dated air conditioning. The hermetically-sealed curtain-wall boxes would therefore be in greater trouble than the 1920s-era spires, of which, the American International Building is a fine example, and probably my favorite symbol. As David Owen noted in "Green Manhattan," elevators are the most efficient means of human travel yet devised. In a tight-energy economy, this efficiency would become non-negligible. So, yes, they take energy to operate, but less energy than the alternatives.

By AD, at 4/17/2005 9:00 PM  

The notion that New Yorkers don't need cars is a total fallacy.

It would be more correct to say that (most) New Yorkers depend on other people's transportation.

There are huge environmental costs related to delivering goods, services and energy to massive cities.

But most New Yorkers don't think about these costs, because they live an urban existence abstracted from (yet still dependent upon) the mechanics of life.

City residents leave large environmental footprints, but they don't see their own feet -- because, as Ms. Murray notes with her questions, they have put the messy part of life (garbage disposal, farming, cement production, energy generation, etc.) out of sight and out of mind).

By Hudson, at 2/07/2006 4:44 PM  

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