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.