Why Manhattan Might Be the "Greenest" Place in America


In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayor's Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

We discuss the perhaps surprising fact that dense urban living -- where there may be little or no actual green space -- can have a considerably lighter environmental impact per capita than suburban or rural lifestyles. The use and availability of transit options versus automobiles affects population density in what can become either a vicious or a virtuous cycle.

A transcript follows the video.

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Isaac Pino: When I visit Manhattan, for example, I'm confronted by massive concrete and steel buildings; hot, congested streets; very few open green spaces. But you point out that a city designed like Manhattan is actually more green than life in a rural area or in the countryside. Why is that the case, if you could just go a little bit deeper on that?

Jeff Speck: Several chapters of my book are stolen from other people, with full credit.

By the way, my economics chapter is taken mostly from a great book by Chris Leinberger called The Option of Urbanism that discusses all these issues I've been raising, and also that white paper I discussed, "Portland's Green Dividend," by Joe Cortright.

My source for the environmental chapter, among others, was David Owen's book, Green Metropolis. David Owen is a New Yorker writer. He writes beautifully.

Green Metropolis was going to be called "Green Manhattan," because he stumbled upon the fact that Manhattanites use about a third of the oil or fuel as typical Americans. They use about a third of the electricity as typical Americans.

He started asking, "Why is this? What is it about the way that people live in Manhattan?" It's a combination of factors. Probably the biggest one is the transit system. There are more subway stops in Manhattan than there are in all the other American cities put together.

Then it's density, such that when your apartment gives off heating or cooling, you're heating and cooling your neighbor; you're not heating or cooling the sky around you. But of course the density is a function of the transportation system, and that's a virtuous cycle that we've seen be a degenerative cycle in most American cities, where the automobile has allowed people to decentralize.

That decentralizing has made the automobile more necessary, and then that just goes on and on and on. What's happened in New York and a number of other downtown or denser parts of American cities is this virtuous cycle of transit begetting density, begetting more transit.

Now, in New York, everything they do to add bike lanes has had a super powerful impact on the number of bicyclists, for a number of reasons -- one, because almost nobody biked in New York before, so New York did double its biking in just a few years, but still you would go there and there would be nobody biking. It would just be two times zero.

Now, in fact, if you go to New York City you do see a lot of bicyclists. Particularly in cities of that intensity, you need the separated travel lanes to make that happen.

But there's a tremendous counterintuitive aspect to it, which is that sometimes the places that look the least natural are the places that allow us to have the lightest footprint, and also the places where we want to walk, and this is surprising.

David Owen tells a fantastic story about how he used to always walk around Manhattan with his baby daughter in a Snuggly on his -- I don't know, front, back, wherever you put a Snuggly -- and she would love these walks.

He'd walk to the store, the dry cleaner, he'd walk for hours, and she was always entertained. Then they moved to Vermont, and he was so looking forward to the walk from the house to the town square, in small-town Vermont with his daughter, and she couldn't stand it. She started to complain within five minutes of leaving the house, because it's boring. Nature is boring.

If the goal is to get people to take walks for exercise, then all these green trails and everything else is fantastic. But if the goal is to institute the useful walk, the useful daily walk, as part of our lives, then it's more about, "What's lining the streets that I can take advantage of?" not "How green is it?" or "Is it absorbing CO2 as I walk by it?"

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