Why Manhattan is the Greenest City in North America

Post by Mike Klassen in

39 comments

DO-posterNew Yorker magazine staff writer David Owen give a free talk Thursday eve

David Owen is one of those brave souls who doesn't think like the rest of us. He's challenging our notions of what "being green" means in a way you'll never hear from Gregor Robertson or the Tides Canada Foundation even after their 500-year vision for the planet ends. Owen knows that the real aim is reducing carbon from entering our atmosphere. Reducing the amount of energy we use is the way we achieve that.

Owen writes about important stuff like the Jevons paradox. What's that you ask? It's a pretty sound theory arrived at by economist William Stanley Jevons in the 19th Century. It argues that by making your energy use more efficient, you end up using more of it. Owen's article in The New Yorker called it "The Efficiency Dilemma" and it provides several case examples of where industries or even citizens use more energy efficient practices or products, it invites using even more energy.

This is why, for example, chasing the dream of the electric car over, say, seriously proposing a rapid transit alternative such as a streetcar makes no sense. The goal must be the reduction of carbon, which you achieve by making distances shorter for goods and services, and invest in rapid transit.

Then there is the local food movement, which Owen takes a critical view of here. I'm one of those people who would toil in a garden every day if I could, and I take considerable pride in the food we grow in our yard. But I recognize that "locavorism" presents not only economic challenges (note the news of a trendy farmer's cooperative going bankrupt last week), it also doesn't make sense for many products if a lower carbon footprint is your goal.

green-metropolis Owen is the author of a bestseller titled Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. David has been invited to speak in Vancouver by Sam Sullivan's Global Civic Policy Society and the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. It's a free talk taking place this Thursday, March 17, 7:30 pm, at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. You must RSVP by email to lzanatta@telus.net if you would like to attend.

Owen's talk is titled "Why Manhattan is the Greenest City in North America." It's taking place in the city which proposes to become the greenest, but wishes to do so largely through symbolic gestures like community gardens at City Hall, and backyard chicken policies. Owen will be speaking on the "greenest" day of the year – St. Patrick's Day. Everyone who attends on Thursday night is encouraged to wear something green in the spirit of the occasion.

I highly recommend Owen's talk for those who are interested in the debate about "going green," and want to know how cities can truly achieve this. One reviewer describes Green Metropolis like this:

While the conventional wisdom condemns it as an environmental nightmare, Manhattan is by far the greenest place in America, argues this stimulating eco-urbanist manifesto. According to Owen (Sheetrock and Shellac), staff writer at the New Yorker, New York City is a model of sustainability: its extreme density and compactness—and horrifically congested traffic—encourage a carfree lifestyle centered on walking and public transit; its massive apartment buildings use the heat escaping from one dwelling to warm the ones adjoining it; as a result, he notes, New Yorkers' per capita greenhouse gas emissions are less than a third of the average American's.

The author attacks the powerful anti-urban bias of American environmentalists like Michael Pollan and Amory Lovins, whose rurally situated, auto-dependent Rocky Mountain Institute he paints as an ecological disaster area. The environmental movement's disdain for cities and fetishization of open space, backyard compost heaps, locavorism and high-tech gadgetry like solar panels and triple-paned windows is, he warns, a formula for wasteful sprawl and green-washed consumerism. Owen's lucid, biting prose crackles with striking facts that yield paradigm-shifting insights. The result is a compelling analysis of the world's environmental predicament that upends orthodox opinion and points the way to practical solutions.

Can Vancouver achieve this true green goal? Then we must challenge our thinking about what it really means to be green with the help of thinkers like David Owen. To see more of Owen's articles visit his blog at www.DavidOwen.net.

Read an op/ed by David Owen recently published in the Vancouver Sun. As well see a David Owen interview with Carlito Pablo in the Georgia Straight.

Be sure to RSVP right away as seating is limited. See the invite on Facebook.

- post by Mike

39 Comments

Actually the city's green goals list local food at #10 of 10. Interesting that the author's book cover features a skyscraper riding a bike... increased density and active transportation initiatives being two areas where the current administration has been roundly criticized on this site.

http://talkgreenvancouver.ca/goals

It would appear once could argue quite convincingly Vision Vancouver is making progress in exactly the right places.

That's awkward... if your goal is politically motivated rather than objective analysis.

Actually, it's the 2nd edition cover. Cute little building, isn't it? Here's the 1st edition cover.

http://www.theenvironmentalblog.org/2009/09/green-metropolis-david-owen/

I'm happy to debate some time whether Mayor Gregor's symbolic efforts are going to just make us feel better, or if there's a better plan to achieve carbon reductions.

Thankfully the City still embraces the EcoDensity concept, including laneway housing, championed by you-know-who.

"It's taking place in the city which proposes to become the greenest, but wishes to do so largely through symbolic gestures like community gardens at City Hall, and backyard chicken policies. "

Clearly an incorrect characterization Mike. The more you treat your readers like idiots the less likely we'll participate on your blog, or expect to find useful analysis of civic issues.

"The more you treat your readers like idiots the less likely we'll participate on your blog"


hear hear

CK there's no way you'd stop participating on this blog. Your paycheques from Vision Vancouver would get cut off then.

Hi Paul:

When you have to spread lies to try to beat down the people you disagree with, you've become the very thing you claim to hate. When you take issue with people who demand honesty and some semblance of objective analysis, you've become a part of the problem.

When you try to smear people behind the cloak of anonymity, you're a coward.

Congratulations. Three for three.

Chris, I have the utmost respect for our readers and their ability to discern facts over fantasy, as in the case of the Mayor's green dream. Vancouver set a course two decades ago to lead the way on sustainability with initiatives like CityPlan and Clouds of Change. Yet, we have someone who arrives in office and makes it sound as though he's the first person to have thought of it.

Whatever Robertson accomplishes he does so only on the shoulders of the true leaders that proceeded him. I like contrarians like Owen because they have the capacity to see through the smog of image-making and buzz phrases, and don't try to sell green like it's a CF bulb you screw in.

Gregor Robertson came out in 2009 saying he would create 20,000 "green jobs" by 2020. Just a couple of months ago he revised that figure to 12,000, and in doing so made virtually job description short of hockey player fit into his green box. What about jobs that aren't green? Do we care about those, too?

Robertson talks a whole bunch these days about 'affordable' housing. But do you notice he doesn't really discuss solutions to that problem – like creating more housing supply? How's he going to do that?

You're free to say that Vision is doing a great job all you want on this blog. But I suggest that your Mayor starts explaining what his green dream is instead of stating platitudes about the planet. I'll take Owen's advice, and take a pass on Gregor's GCAT kumbaya sessions.

By the way, I hope that you make it out Thursday to Owen's talk.

Mike:

My beef is with your article. I haven't said the mayor is doing a great job. I'm saying you aren't. When you say the city's green efforts 'largely' center on City hall veg gardens and backyard chickens it is an inaccurate portrayal of the facts.

Your stated goal with this website is:
"to have a fun, but respectful dialogue about Canada's major urban centres"

yet this blog seems to fixate on the spin and political gamesmanship, under a thin veneer of discussion of the issues.

You claim:

"Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed."

yet personal attacks are regularly posted here and not edited or removed.

There is a big disconnect between what you promise and what you deliver.

BTW, the NHLPA does make an effort to go green, maybe they should be green jobs too?

http://www.nhlpa.com/Giving-Back/Carbon-Neutral-Challenge/

Chris, you did suggest Vision were doing a good job in your first comment.

This council's top achievements are backyard chickens, a community garden at City Hall, and your favourite whipping horse along Hornby & Dunsmuir. I'm waiting to hear what else.

I tread very carefully when it comes to removing/editing comments. Outright attacks and coarse language are where I draw the line. Someone saying you're paid by Vision is hardly worth taking down. People accuse us all the time of being paid to do this blog. I tell them we're not. That's the end of it.

We've got over 10,000 comments on this blog. I've had to spike maybe a dozen in 29 months of operation, which tells you how awesome our readers are.

"Chris, you did suggest Vision were doing a good job in your first comment."

Re-read it. I said they could be portrayed as making progress in the right places. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

"Someone saying you're paid by Vision is hardly worth taking down. "

It's a personal attack. Are they allowed or not? According to your own rules, they are not. I guess it's a bit like revising a campaign promise downward n'est-ce pas? :-)

Chris, you have posted numerous times that you are not on the Vision payroll. I believe my comment was directed more at the unlikeliness of you stopping posting on this blog. You are one of the chief deflectors of any negative stories that show up here.

You and boohoo are quick to show up and argue anything that Mike or Daniel post. If you can't argue the point, you deflect away from the point of the story.

If you want to post about things, be prepared to be questioned. When you continually post contrary positions (no matter WHAT the topic) be prepared to be questioned.

When you make a threat like leaving this blog, you make me want to cheer. It would be nice to have a fair conversation with people (even anonymously) without you and boohoo trying to poke holes and deflect just for the sake of supporting Vision.

Thank you Paul...

At the risk of attack, I see a difference between the way Chris Keam (who I don't necessarily agree with) tends to pose his rebuttals and the way Boohoo (who I don't always agree with) poses his.

Chris Keam tends to put forth a counter argument - I find that productive and worthwhile IF there is a dialogue to be had (and I hope there is). FYI I do not always buy what Mike and Daniel sell as their Kool-Aid either - but BIG Kudos are due them for putting it out there fairly for debate.

IF the purpose of this site is to stimulate dialogue then lets have the dialogue - which inherently involves opposing points of view.

IF this site's purpose is only to serve as the propaganda arm of the NPA then that should be clarified too, and perhaps sign-up protocols initiated and passwords issued so that opposing viewpoints don't creep in and drown out all the preaching from the choir.

Paul/Douglas,

Why am I being dragged into this.

As for my approach and 'deflecting for vision', I've stated dozens of times I think the parties should be abolished. How is that support?

As I said before, I look forward to this blog being as critical and hard hitting when/if a different party is in power.

Chris, if you want the rules abided by, then I suggest you learn them as well.

Not too long ago, you referred to George and I as 'sock puppets'.

A 'personal' attack, on both of us.

Thank you so much Max..

The fact that you even remember that, and are willing to stand up and say something on my behalf humbles me..

David Owen makes a compelling argument in his book but he's not without critics. He was roundly criticized for his article on the Jevon's Effect a couple of weeks ago. For example, here's James Barrett of the Clean Economy Development Center and National Geographic:

"It’s easy to be sucked in by stories like the ones Owen tells. The rebound effect is real and it makes sense. Owen’s anecdotes reinforce that common sense. But it’s not enough to observe that energy use has gone up despite efficiency gains and conclude that the rebound effect makes efficiency efforts a waste of time, as Owen implies. As our per capita income increases, we’ll end up buying more of lots of things, maybe even energy. The question is how much higher would it have been otherwise."

http://www.greatenergychallengeblog.com/blog/2010/12/20/rebounds-gone-wild/

More significantly, as Gordon Price is currently highlighting on his blog, urbanist James Howard Kunstler has some not so kind words about Owen's argument that skyscrapers are a solution to our sustainability predicament:

"Q. Do you find yourself swayed, even a little, by these defenders of urban density?

A. I am completely on board with compact, dense urbanism. It’s a mistake, though, to think that’s the same as an urbanism of mega-structures — either skyscrapers or landscrapers.

A lot of this misunderstanding derived from David Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article, “ Green Manhattan,” which declared that stacking people up in towers was the ultimate triumph of urban ecology. Owen is a very nice fellow, but this thesis was a crock.

… We are entering a capital-scarce, energy-scarce future. The skyscraper is already obsolete and the architects and academic economists remain tragically clueless about it.

Oddly, the main reason we’re done with skyscrapers is not because of the electric issues or heating-cooling issues per se, but because they will never be renovated! They are one-generation buildings. … You cannot have a city of buildings unavailable for and unsuited for adaptive re-use. This final exuberant generation of skyscrapers built the past few decades — including the mis-named “green” skyscrapers — may be considered the architectural expression of the final cheap oil blow-off."

http://pricetags.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/density-not-highrises/

I am confused.

David Owen's main point is that we need to get people out of cars. The reason why NYC is "green" is because it has a lower energy use and that is mainly a result of people driving SOVs less.

In fact he thinks that congestion is good because it discourages people from driving.

But this blog has been quite critical of the city's efforts to create alternatives to SOV travel. And critical of congestion that might result from adding bike lanes.

Are you now reversing your position?

@ clean-air - skyscrapers "... are one-generation buildings. … You cannot have a city of buildings unavailable for and unsuited for adaptive re-use." and "
...the main reason we’re done with skyscrapers is .... because they will never be renovated! "

The B.C. Electric Building in Vancouver - by Charles 'Ned' Pratt (Thompson Berwick Pratt) was based on theoretical design by Le Corbusier - this office tower was indeed adapted to house condominiums (the 'Electra'), albeit at the expense of its true architectural historical value (distance of office- worker to natural light).

The 'Westcoast Transmission Bldg. ' became 'the Cube' - another similar adaptive reuse of an office tower.

You have to actually challenge architects with respect to adaptive reuse of old buildings before you state summarily that they cannot rise to it. You may be surprised the solutions that do come up, as the living examples noted above already show.

There are aspects to 'skyscrapers' that lend themselves readily to adaptive re-use (open floor plate, good access to light), IF there us an economic case for them. In my opinion it is not a question of architectural adaptation, but a function of land and development economics that will determine the # of towers to be adaptively re-used in the coming years, Architecturally - such an adaptation is readily do-able.

Interesting thoughts Douglas and clean air.

Mr Owen's contention that ""Manhattan" is the greenest city in North America" can be challenged right here in Vancouver. Our West End and Downtown combined have a lot in common with Manhattan -- 1 an island, the 2nd a peninsula (used to be an island), both mixed use, both high density, high rise, both have lots of walkers, etc.

Manahattan is a Bourg of the City of New York. It is not a city. If all of NYC and metro NY were brought into the picture, the 'greenest city" conclusions might not be much different for what we have here. No doubt there are those who might be able to comment in more detail on such a comparison.

Vancouver has already realized in the 1970s many of the shortcomings of simplistic zoning and higher, and denser is good no matter where, what or why. City building in Vancouver and these 2 areas in particular have improved, until recently. Parachuted spot rezonings which ignore community visions, zoning by-laws and neighbourhood opinions are not healthy or smart city building. Increased density when and where it makes sense from a variety of perspectives, 2 being 'green' and neighbourhood priorities, is an important part of such a smart, healthy process, but only one part.

The EcoDensity Charter is just that. It defines many worthwhile objectives with respect to energy use in city building in Vancouver, but it does not prescribe any solutions. So far, the solutions: parachuted, overly dense spot rezonings, Kingsway, Cambie corridor planning and STIR, are all doing far more damage than good. Even laneway housing isn't good enough yet, although it may be possible to refine it.

It will be interesting to hear just what Mr.Owen says on Thursday. Vancouver does not need more simplistic bigger is better notions. But, given our history, what we have learned from it and can still learn, we can continue to move forward intelligently to continue building an even better Vancouver.

I scream.
You scream.
We all scream...Kiss Cream!
You are a scream, hon!

@Max (and George)

There's a couple of flaws in your comparison. For starters, 'Max' and 'George' don't exist. They are personas you have both invented in order to be able to comment anonymously on the web. They can't be connected to your real lives unless you choose to reveal your actual names, and no possible damage can come to you, no matter how erroneous a statement is made regarding those fictitious people. So it's impossible to make a personal attack on a made-up person.

For those of us who choose to post with our real names, on a web site where the rules are supposedly 'no personal attacks', it's not beyond the pale to expect that rule to be upheld, especially when the allegation being made is that a commenter is being recompensed for their online statements. The Tyee has no problem managing their site, with even stricter rules in place.

All Mike and Daniel need to do is start enforcing the rules they created, and people will soon start to abide by them of their own accord. I don't think that's too much to ask.

Secondly, even if your comparison of my suggestion that your online identities might be sock puppets was valid, you should note that I made that statement once, and accepted your assurance it was not the case. The same can't be said of Paul's charge against me. I've repeatedly stated nobody pays me to comment, but because I challenge the conventional wisdom on City Caucus, it comes up again and again. 'Bad form' as the English would say, or perhaps a telling commentary that some people assume those who disagree with them must be bought and paid for. Which is more of a reflection upon the mindset of the accuser than the accused.

Newsflash, not everyone in the world is convinced the current council is the cause of all that is wrong with the world, nor do they need to be paid to suggest otherwise.

@Paul:

Your statement was quite clear. Have the stones to either retract it or come up with proof. Trying to pretend you didn't make an unfounded allegation is weak, especially when your chief piece of evidence is a bunch of bizarre blanket statements in a pitiful attempt to justify your comments.

@Michelle:

You're doing it wrong. It goes like this. Chris Keam. Chris Cream. Cream Puff. Puff. At least that's how the big brothers of my best friend use to try to bully me in Grade 5. You're presumably a grown-up. Try harder.

sincerely,
Puff (the not magic, non-dragon)

Chris Keam

Not sure why you are pulling me into your drama, I have not responded to you.

My name is George... sorry if you have a problem with it.


George:

Doesn't matter if that's your real name or not. You've chosen anonymity. It's a trade-off. You get to make all kinds of statements without worrying about it impacting you in the real world. You don't get to make the same demands re: unsubstantiated allegations about you.

Further, you have also suggested various individuals (myself and others) are paid to comment, is that not true? My comments are in regard to your behaviour too.

Chris

I said leave me out of your drama..I don't want to be bothered dealing with you. I have that right.
You are losing control man, get a grip.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4c0t4YzXgYw

@ Chris:

Nice try at a back pedal.

You have gone on the attack more than once on this site, and no one has stepped up and called for either Mike or Daniel to barr you.

We are all adults here.

And if you are going to give it, be quite prepared to take it.

And FYI, 'Max' is the short abbreviation for my given middle name.
The name my father has called be since Day 1.

I will also note that I have NEVER refered to you by any other name than Chris. Nothing, nada, zero, zilch.

Max:

I'm not asking for anyone to be barred.

I don't care how you choose your pseudonym.

Your comparison doesn't work.

That's all there is to it.


Off topic but...

Watching Global last night, I could not help wonder if Trevor Linden would run for Mayor?

"I'm happy to debate some time whether Mayor Gregor's symbolic efforts are going to just make us feel better, or if there's a better plan to achieve carbon reductions."

OK Mike, let's have the debate. As part of it I hope you will put forth your own policy proposals. It would also be useful to have a debate on what we mean by a green/sustainable/resilient city. Probably a precursor. Just lowering carbon emmissions does not seem enough of a metric to me.

Density is one important approach to building a sustainable and resilient city (it is not the only design choice available, but it is one that I happen to like as well). In any case, under Vision the city has come up with a more coherent policy on this than any we have had before. One could argue that this is mostly a matter of timing, and that a government led by Sam Sullivan, or Peter Ladner, or even Christy Clark would have done more or less the same things. In fact, I think it likely.

And Chris is correct that the http://talkgreenvancouver.ca/goals have a lot more in common with David Owen's views.

Mike, you should have come to the unConfernce the city had on its Greenest City plan. If you would engage with some actual policy ideas rather than just taking wild swings you would have more credibility. What are the specific points on the plan that you disagree with? Why do you disagree? What do you see as policy options?

"... He's challenging our notions of what "being green" means in a way you'll never hear from Gregor Robertson ... Reducing the amount of energy we use is the way we achieve that."

Any one who has looked at the Greenest City Action plan know that this statement makes no sense at all.

Policies like:
- more bike lanes
- more rapid transit
- the solar hot water program
- the new building codes
are all about reducing the amount of energy we use.

The first sustainable feature to be implemented in this city is to stop peddling condos to offshore 'investors'. An empty building is the most non-sustainable. Any plans for that? Sure, chicken coops, bee hives and bike lanes.

The Thought of The Day

“Well, my name is Glissando Remmy, but most people call me...Glisando Remmy!”

Chris,

Pseudonyms in the spotlight... none of the people on the following list (my personal favourites in a mix and match real and pseudo-names) would have gotten their break in their chosen profession if the ‘powers that be’ of the day would have known their real names.
And you can bet your Vision fur on this one!

Richard Stark? Writer of the “The Man with the Getaway Face”
John Lange? Writer of the ”Jurassic Park”.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Writer of the ‘Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn”
William Sidney Porter? Writer of the “Gift of The Magi”
Isaac Bickerstaff? Writer of the “Gulliver’s Travels”
Charles Lutwidge Dogson? Writer of the “Alice in Wonderland”
Theodor Geisel? Writer of the “Dr. Seuss”

Oh, and BTW, ALL the ‘ghost writers’ during the McCarthy’s Era were called just that for the same reason. They were also blacklisted because they were ‘Communist Sympathizers’. In our days some of us feel that way because we call them powers that be ...Communist Sympathisers. Go figure!

Anyhoo...

I’ll leave you with another dear, good old friend of mine...Art Buchwald, yes this was his real name, lucky him. Once, he wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Just when you think there's nothing to write about....Nixon says, 'I am not a crook,'" And yes, that was Richard Nixon

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

You've managed to completely miss the point GR. My beef isn't with pseudonyms, it's with people that use them, then attack those who do use their real names, by making spurious, false allegations under the cloak of anonymity.

I don't think any of the illustrious nom de plumes you listed were in the habit of trashing other people, but feel free to provide some evidence otherwise.

CK

I would like to hear some serious comment on the subject of this post. It's an important one, and when some regular commenters are not at each other, they manage to make very incitefull comments on a variety of topics. I value those, and this topic is, IMO, an important one because it speaks to where we've been, where we are and where we might go as a City. I hope we can get past this impasse.

Cheers.

@ Bill


Public transportation needs to be increased, especially along the high traffic areas such as the Broadway corridor.

Many people are willing to use transit as an alternative method of transportation, especially during the winter months, but waiitng endlessly for busses does get annoying.

I do drive, but when I can, use tranist. It saves driving around endlessly looking for parking or having to leave a meeting to plug the metre.

On a larger level, I support the Evergreen line being constructed and sooner rather than later. I also believe that the Sky Train should be pushed into the Guildford area of Surrey rather than stopping at King George.

Again, it would with traffic conjestion on an overall scale.

Mr. Keam. I'm a little confused, so please clarify.....Do you have a profession other than posting on numerous blogs and comment pages?
It makes me curious when every time I think I can get some insight from fellow Vancouverites, I am almost without fail subjected to you turning an open discussion among people with a mindset other than your own, into a long, cliche ridden display of thesaurus based attacks with the only intent being that of the disruption of free thought and commentary of a certain ilk.

So my question too you...If your only personal satisfaction comes from sites with your viewpoint...Why not stay there, and leave us poor uninformed souls to flounder?

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