29 May 2008

Green cities

I went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It's a strange and beautiful campus, with vast meadows and classroom buildings peeking out between trees on forested hillsides. I'd often see deer pass within a few yards of me while on my way to class. There was a strongly hippie-ish student culture there, and it was easy to dream utopian dreams of a world like the campus: great cities woven gently into nature, filled with bicyclists stopping at little restaurants to enjoy an organic salad on their way home from work.

But David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, has a different idea.

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve 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. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day.

The utopian community was Manhattan. (Our apartment was on Sixty-ninth Street, between Second and Third.) Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. 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 devastating 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 Manhattanite 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 51st in per-capita energy use.

Owen's article is long and fascinating, and I recently learned that CNN reports that he's right about energy use.

These days I no longer dream of forest cities like UCSC, but of tall steel arcologies alive with people riding its railcars, sitting in the teahouses on the breezy balconies, walking the twisty boulevards of the core that are dappled with sunlight streaming through the superstructure ...

1 comment:

thorn said...

Yep. Urban arcologies have been my dream for about a decade, now. But we need to build them from existing cities, not start from scratch like Solieri attempts. Folks are making the attempt in various places. Perhaps we'll get there with the dying of suburbia.