Green Manhattan, Why New York City is the Greenest City in America
Green Manhattan is the title of a fantastic article written in 2004 by David Owen, a correspondent for The New Yorker since 1991. While Owen’s piece may seem very dense, it is such a great read.
In his intervention on Manhattan as an environmental model of responsibility, Owen touches on questions that we should all ask ourselves about cities, how we want to live, and where the responsibility and solutions are for our current climate crisis.
Consequently, I thought it useful to summarize and communicate the gist of his argument.
Here are Owen’s key points in Green Manhattan:
Geography and Physical Planning
Manhattan’s example as an environmental model is hard to replicate because its remarkable population density did not result from conscious planning, but rather, from a series of predispositions.
- New York City arose on an island rather than the mainland edge, making it impossible to expand outward, and instead forcing expansion inward and upward.
- Manhattan’s street plan was created by merchants, who were more interested in its economic efficiency rather than its physical appearance, causing residential, commercial, and cultural offerings to be closely knitted together.
As Owen accurately relates, this humanizing compactness of diverse uses within a city and its neighborhoods is what Jane Jacobs coined in 1961 as being the ultimate driver of safe and successful metropolitan life.
- By the early 1900s, most of the city’s lines had been drawn, making it difficult for great capitalist forces like Robert Moses, to shape the city according to the purpose and design of the automobile, the great destroyer of American life.
Manhattan’s Urban Antithesis
Owen discusses Washing, D.C. as being the most relevant counter-example to Manhattan in terms of population density, physical layout, and automobile use. While Washington is commonly viewed as the most intelligently beautiful, and the most European, of large American cities, contrary to Manhattan, it is an ecological nightmare.
- The city is difficult to get around on foot; the wide avenues are hard to cross, the traffic circles are like obstacle courses, and the empty spaces deter pedestrians.
- The city lacks density of diverse uses; most of its buildings are relentlessly homogeneous, causing a lack of intertwining residential, commercial, and cultural offerings.
- The city’s horizontal airy design is causing outward sprawl; because building height is limited by laws, the city expands outwards into the countryside.
- Because of the city’s horizontal layout, public transportation has facilitated, rather than discouraged, sprawl into suburbs, where travel then requires the use of cars.
The Deceiving Nature of Low-Density Sprawl
New York City generates less greenhouse gases, uses less energy, and produces less solid waste per resident or household than its less-dense neighboring cities and suburbs.
Spreading people out increases the damage they do to the environment, while making the problems harder to see and address.
Dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for one of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills: dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs are not.
Besides that, population density promotes tremendous positive outcomes with regards to fossil fuels, electricity, land use, and overall environmental impact.
“The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the headless burning of fussil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric.” (David Owen, Green Manhattan)
One of the obvious ways to reduce consumption of fossil fuels is to shift more people out of cars and into public transit, but in order for public transport to work, you need the density of big cities like Manhattan to help support it.
Population density with regards to transport has two main consequences:
- Less people in cars → more people are walking or biking
- Less people in cars → more people traveling by public transit
Congestion in dense cities not only lowers the amount of people traveling by car, but it also slows down car speed enough to the point where they are no longer hazardous for pedestrians and bicycle riders.
People who live in cities use only about half as much electricity as people who don’t, and people who live in New York City generally use less than the urban average.
Because of this, Owen discusses how raising electricity prices for people and businesses in cities would be counter-intuitive. It would mean that they would probably relocate outside of the city, which in his simple words is equivalent to relocating them from a subway stop to a parking lot — the environmental consequence would be devastating.
Environmentalists tend to think of big tall buildings as environmentally catastrophic because of the energy expended in their construction, and because the buildings place intensely localized stresses on sewers, power lines, and water systems.
Yet as Owen argues, density in tall buildings can create the same kinds of ecological beneifts in individual structures as it does in entier communities.
- Tall buildings have less exposed exterior surface per square foot of interior space than smaller buildings, meaning their small roofs absorb less heat from the sun during cooling season, and radiate less heat from inside during heating season.
- Tall buildings use significantly less heating fuel than suburban-type houses.
“When we lived in New York, heat escaping from our apartment helped to heat the apartment above ours; nowadays, many of the Btus produced by our brand-new, extremely efficient oil-burning furnace leak through our two-hundred-year-old roof and into the dazzling star-filled winter sky above.” (David Owen, Green Manhattan)
- Occupants of tall buildings do most of their coming and going in elevators instead of cars, which are among the most energy efficient passengers vehicles around the world.
- Tall buildings in Manhattan usually don’t have parking lots because the people living or working in them do not need them. In most other parts of America, big parking lots are required by law.
“If my town’s zoning regulations applied in Manhattan, 4 Times Square would have needed sixteen thousand parking spaces, one for every hundred square feet of office floor space.” (David Owen, Green Manhattan)
- As a result, tall buildings also consume much less land than small buidlings or suburban homes.
The Environmental Impact of How We Live
By far, the worst damage that people do to the planet and for the climate crisis does not arise from the newspapers that are thrown away but from the hundreds of millions of oil consumed everyday.
Manhattan is thus an environmental dream because of its vertical development and the its resulting population density. Not in spite of these characteristics, it is also one of the most fascinating cities with some of the most vibrant lively neighborhoods and streets, and a booming economy.
“The standard american dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello. It was the car that put it within our reach. But what a terrible price we have paid — and have yet to pay — for our liberation from the city.” (David Owen, Green Manhattan)
Even though Manhattan’s environmental model may have been shaped by certain predispositions rather than conscious planning, if we want to be environmentally responsible with our metropolitan areas, we need to consciously apply the same limits and restrictions as its geography has; we need to push development inward and upward, rather than outward.
If we trust Jane Jacobs’ judgement of great cities, this will only help create safer, more vibrant, and more livable places.
Green Manhattan: https://www.davidowen.net/files/green-manhattan.pdf