Kirkus Reviews QR Code


What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability

by David Owen

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59448-882-5
Publisher: Riverhead

Want to reduce your carbon footprint and save the planet? Move to Manhattan.

New Yorker staff writer Owen (Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, 2006, etc.) seeks earnestly to overturn the traditional wisdom that says the only way to show your love for Mother Earth is to move to the country, make candles and go locavore. “New York,” he writes, “is the greenest community in the United States.” This may seem counterintuitive, but consider: Most urbanites live in small spaces rather than the McMansions of suburbia, if only because they cannot afford anything larger, and most walk to the grocery store, take mass transit and get enough exercise to avoid becoming slugs (mere consumers, that is). Conversely, a back-to-the-lander may live virtuously, but taking a Volvo rather than Birkenstocks to the store undoes many good intentions. Owen assembles useful facts, some of them sure to be surprises even for the most learned of NYC boosters. Still, he recognizes that were it not for the accident of crowded island life, Manhattan and environs could just as easily be Los Angeles. “When cities are built on a ‘human’ scale,” he writes, “they virtually force the creation of vast suburbs, with miles of freeways, long commutes, traffic jams, and shopping malls.” Occasionally the author inflates the significance of the facts to support his thesis. After all, it comes down to the hows as well as the wheres—a vegetarian living in the country, for instance, no matter how car-happy, will use fewer resources than a meat eater in the city. Owen works the city-versus-countryside theme into the ground—ruralites may feel a little picked-on—but the author does an important service in pointing out that those who live in cities can be just as green as your garden-variety organic farmer—and even more so.

He’s no McPhee or Pollan, but Owen provides a dogged, contrarian argument that scores some good points.