We are told from the day we’re born that the City is bad and Wilderness is good. It doesn’t matter what part of the political spectrum you’re on. Environmentalists lament the unnatural horror of cement and glass. Libertarians talk about the mythical Jeffersonian agrarian utopia (magically about freedom, though it can not work without slavery). Yet David Owen claims that this is a misguided vision of an America, and a world, that can not stand. For Owen, the city of Manhattan stands as a shining beacon of culture and environmental sustainability. And he makes a strong case.
One of the most negative activities a person can do, in regards to the environment, is own and drive a car. From the pollution it spits out, to the resources it consumes, our daily commutes and extra errands directly impact the world. For Owen, the life of Manhattanites, with its closeness and walkability, not to mention public transit accessibility is better for the world and for the people who live in it. Owen delves into the history of oil, the history of New York City, and explanations of some contemporary urban works.
He makes a lot of good points, though he gives little in the way of practical suggestions. The one thing I noticed that would be fairly easy to implement (from a planning point of view, if not from a voter’s point of view) would be to expand high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and put tolls on single occupant lanes. I agree with him that it shouldn’t be about improving traffic flow, but about reducing the traffic itself. But this also requires that we live closer together, that we have public transit options that actually serve the community.
I think Owen too easily dismisses some ideas, particularly urban, “vertical” farms. And while I think I agree with his ideas about better designing parks, I don’t think he explained himself as well as he could have on that matter. The book also came out before several advances in renewable energy collection, retention, and distribution.
There is, of course, no magic bullet. So often environmentalists endorse an idea as though it will be a magic bullet to solve our problems. And so often, conservatives dismiss an idea because it can’t be one. Both positions are problematic. A synthesis of ideas is what’s needed. Build closer, create better infrastructure, plan parks so that they don’t become dead zones or crime magnets, supplement food distribution and create jobs with vertical farms, etc.
David Owens has created a compelling case for city life. From my own experiences, growing up in a spread out suburban type town, to living and working in a more urban area, I’ve seen many of the things he talks about first hand. And I agree with him that we shouldn’t look at cities as blights on the world or on society. We should learn from them, cultivate the aspects that work, and make them better. Because at some point, the oil will run out. At some point, the cities will become our home. We can make them wonderful places to live and grow as people, or we can find them prisons of our own creation.