Monday, March 21, 2011

thoughts on David Owen's Lecture: Why Manhattan is the Greenest City in North America

Co-design attended David Owen's lecture in Vancouver.  A summary of Owen's ideas can be found in his blog here, and in the New Yorker article here Owen argues that dense urban centres are an effective alternative to sprawl for preserving farmland and ecological habitats.  And  "living smaller, closer, driving less" reduces our carbon footprint.  While this is true, I'm not convinced that density on the scale of NYC is a green solution.   

If high-density urban centres preserve earth's wilderness and farmland by virtue of avoidance, then this solution might be even more green than NYC:  
Moon base Alpha
Density is an efficient solution but is it ecological?  Ecological systems are self supporting. Take into consideration the following factors: living plants and animals forming the food source, waste absorbed by the landscape;  inhabitant's psychological need for light and green space...  If we now draw a radius from NYC , what would be the extent of the circle?

Sprawl and NYC are the same solution in two forms: concrete paved over farmland, stream, bog, forest.   The first solution is simply an expanded, less efficient version of the other.  Can communities learn how to live ecologically, and to design architecture and landscapes that blend seamlessly into the land?   Is it possible to design communities to support and interact with existing biodiversity?  
Owen argues that attempts to live "green" outside of dense urban centres may be harmful to nature:   
"Spreading people thinly across the countryside, as in rural states like Vermont, may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address."  Q and A with David Owen.  Transportation in low density communities makes them ecologically costly choices,  despite attempts at "green architecture".     

Sue Leaf, a landscape architect,  goes so far as to say that  we are kidding ourselves, if we think that we can build a sustainable house.  Leaf attempted to build an "environmental dream home" and discovered the personal compromises made during the design and building process.  In the end, she asks: 

"Did we not try hard enough? Must we all live in teepees or igloos? If this idea seems absurd, then tell me: What is environmentally responsible housing?  ...For our affluent American society, perhaps a deeper truth is even darker. Perhaps our affluence has blinded us to the choices we can make. Perhaps the plain truth is, we are too wealthy to be moral. Steeped in a materialistic society, with conventional expectations, we built ourselves a commonplace house, conforming to American standards, standards that cannot be maintained anywhere else. Our standards are high because there are still materials to consume. We don't really have to worry about scarcity—yet."  Building Our Environmentally Friendly Dream Home: Our ideal house is energy-efficient, ecofriendly—and can't be built, Sue Leaf

Owen points out that it is the scarcity of space in cities such as Manhattan, Hong Kong, Tokyo that imposes the necessary restraint for green living.  But according to Timothy Beatly, Owen creates a false dichotomy between the urban and the natural: 
"Owen says little about the delight, vitality or beauty of large cities. As a chronicler of urban life, he is no Michael Sorkin or Jane Jacobs (though he often quotes Jacobs). His view of New York is oddly abstracted. He conveys little affection or fondness for cities, little personal passion for urban life, and Manhattan is no exception. And perhaps for this reason there is little acknowledgement that urban and natural, which Owen presents as opposing values, can be harmonized to produce the biophilic city, the city which offers residents meaningful chances to connect with nature." from a Review of Green Metropolis, Timothy Beatly

I don't have an alternative to Owen's cosmopolitan solution.  It may be that efficiency is the best we can do for now.  Instead, I would humbly suggest asking a different question.  Not "how can we live our present lives more efficiently?"  But,  "Imagine the ecological human settlement is finished and designed exactly to your satisfaction.  What would we be doing? Some of these activities do not even require a building...".   Start by redefining our daily round of life, and identifying the desired environment around us.  What would we see, hear, smell, taste in an ecological city? How would we move around?  We may require some density to make it happen.

Cornelia Oberlander  talks of the benefits of density  for urban outdoor spaces, particularly, a lively square, a gathering space with movable chairs:  She emphasizes that the urban landscape must fulfill a psychological need for greenspace, and "fun".  To her, only a "city on foot" can create the critical mass necessary for a square:

"The 21st century is...densification of Vancouver.   And this urban life we negated for so long is here to stay, we must learn that we will be a community that communicates on foot.  We will not drive downtown, because,  to me,  the square is something urban and downtown.  So we, as citizens, must shoulder new responsibilities to make a habitable city for us that adapts to new uses and demands...It will be a city on foot, setting the stage for all the activities that we would like to partake in.  That is:    fresh air:  We need relief from stress from our working days.  To make this city livable..we have to find places where we feel safe, comfortable.  And we can achieve, in these places, passive and active activities for recreation... places for fun in open spaces ... (outdoor) gathering spaces that are different from (just) being at the edge of a beach...
                                       Cornelia Oberlander lecture, Where is the Square? 2008, SFU, Web.

Stanley King has found, through forty years of public participation work, that citizens ask for   dense pedestrian spaces with art, culture, festivals, shopping, services in close proximity. This sounds very much like NYC.   At the same time, they also desire green space: trees, paths through forest, meadow, parks.  Beatley's biophilic city is not so far off from what people ask for.

Insight for a new round of life might be found in the past, from elders who considered their round of life indistinguishable from the rhythm of the landscape,  or from citizens, who could tell you precisely how they wish to live.  Finally, insight can be found  in the imagination of our children and youth, with their fresh eyes, free of preconceived notions of what a city ought to have.