Saturday, November 14, 2009

Green Metropolis by David Owen

David Owen and Nature & Parks

David Owen has what seems to me to be contradictory views on nature. On p. 192, he discusses the growing trend toward "videophilia" - Americans, particularly children, stay home and watch movies rather than leave their homes and exert themselves in the natural world. This is connected to the growing rise of obesity (which is at 42% even in Manhattan, the island that Owen views as the model for the rest of the world). At the same time, Owen also advocates:

"A sensitive person's first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans. especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves. In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wildernesses on TV" (p. 199-200).

It is this quote that drove me out of the hour into a two-hour trek in the park across the street from me. What Owen appears to not consider is this mentality will lead to the destruction of the parks. If you can just watch them on TV or experience them in a virtual environment, then why keep the actual park? Sell off the land and build condos on it, flood it with a dam, strip mine the mountains into plains. Shoot all the animals in canned hunts.

I recently went to a community board meeting where someone present at the meeting complained that raccoons were getting into her garbage and couldn't the board put down poison to kill all the raccoons in the neighborhood. I see raccoons all the time - in the spring, I see raccoon babies with their mom. I also see possums, chipmunks, and smell skunks. It would never occur to me to kill these animals; watching their families enriches my life and those of my neighbors. We simply keep the garbage safely contained until garbage day to minimize problems. Since we have less of a disconnect with wild animals, we are able to see the value of their lives and to work to preserve them.

Owen also seems to prefer sanitized parks. In his comment on Central Park, he notes:

"Central Park covers 843 acres. Those acres would work far better, and function less as a barrier to the overall human flow, if they had been situated somewhere other than in the center of the city, or were penetrated by many more artificial attractions (concession stands, restaurants, sports facilties, museums, playgrounds, theaters) designed to generate and sustain an unbroken chain of lively interaction all the way across the park" (p. 169-170).

My reaction to this passage was, once again, to go for a walk in my park. I live next to Forest Park. Forest Park, along with Central Park and Propect Park, were all three designed by Frederick Olmstead. Olmstead's park designs usually include a wild area (in Central Park this is called The Ramble) that recreates the original forest. In Forest Park, this area is an oak wood crossed by dirt paths. When you enter this oak wood, you enter the Queens of four hundred years ago, before Henry Hudson sailed to Manhattan. All you can see are trees with birds flitting around and chipmunks and squirrels scurrying at your feet. You can smell the rich loam of the forest floor. Invariably I (and whoever is with me) get lost for an hour or so before I locate a trail marking that leads me to the perimeter of the forest and one of the perimeter paths that border the street. My visits are sometimes mildly frightening as I have no sense of direction, but always refreshing.

The beauty of Central Park is that it allows Manhattanites to have a similar experience. Anyone who lives in Manhattan can easily visit a concession stand or museum or theater - they trip over them on the street. Entering a bird-filled forest where for an hour you can get away from people only to re-emerge into Manhattan is an enormous luxury for people who spend their lives in extremely small apartments. Owen, a suburbanite, doesn't want a park - he wants an open-air mall in the middle of the city. I doubt that most city-dwellers will agree with him.

In my next post, I will discuss the pros and cons of sprawl.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Metropolis by David Owen

Urban Farms and Locavorism

On pages 300-304, David Owen gives a compelling argument about why locavorism is actually an energy-intensive, inefficient way to produce food:

"The distance that a particular food item travels between its grower and its ultimate consumer is not a accurate measure of the amount of energy that was required to put it on the table...The California raspberries I purchase at my grocery store have a smaller carbon footprint than the local raspberries I picked recently at a farm just a couple of towns away, because the California raspberries crossed the country in a shipment containing tons of other produce and therefore represent a minute expenditure of fuel per berry, while the local raspberries were obtained by my wife and me during a thirty mile round-trip in a car whose only other cargo was ourselves" (p. 300).

Owen goes on to further develop the idea that costs other than those of transportation such as labor, fertilizers, etc. must be counted when the cost of locally-produced food is calculated. He also criticizes Dickson Despommier's idea of "vertical farming" for creating wasteful infrastructure needed to build vertical farms in the city since Owen feels Manhattan land could be used for more valuable things than farming.

Interestingly enough, Despommier was one of the speakers at the Municipal Art Society Urban Farming panel that I attended on November 4th and he discussed vertical farms (his book about them will be published next year). He advocated building the farm as a working component of the building design. For example, greenhouse gases from the farm would be used to heat the building. One building being discussed would have a cafe that used only food grown in the building's farm.

Another speaker on the panel mentioned that if all the yards in the five boroughs were used to grow food, then 750,000 people could be fed from it. Despommier talked about the enormous amount of grey water that NYC produces every day - enough, if treated (in my opinion) to water those yards while growing water-hungry vegetables. Other panelists talked about rooftop gardens but warned that the structure of the roof must be able to accommodate the weight of wet soil. While it would be pricey to retrofit roofs, it is possible for new buildings, like the one being discussed, could be designed with the idea of a roof garden. However, as Owen points out, the increased load-bearing capacities of the roof design would be an extra cost to be factored into the cost of any food that it produces.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability by David Owen

Introduction and disclaimer:

I read this book last month when I was on vacation. I had just stayed up to six AM because of a twelve hour marathon of season 4 of Doctor Who, slept for eight hours, and awoke at 2 PM with a migraine. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the sky was blue, and I had not yet gotten out of bed. Overcome with guilt, I decided to read an educational book with my coffee and picked Green Metropolis since it appeared to advocate cities. Amazingly enough, after one hour I felt the need to go to my nearby park and commune with nature in its relatively wild oak forest. I'm not sure how happy that urge would make David Owen.

In the first chapter, David Owen admits that he and his wife, empty-nesters, live in a large house in a small town in Connecticut. He uses a huge amount of heat and energy. He drives everywhere and uses big box stores. I appreciated his disclosure of his lifestyle, which directly contradicts what he advocates in his book. As such, I wish to make a disclosure statement about myself before I lead this virtual discussion.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens in a pre-war building. I use lots of paper towels, strip-mined cat litter, and plastic bags daily while taking care of my elderly cats. I don't feed them organic cat food (they refuse to eat the expensive food or use PC cat litter). I also don't use energy-saver light bulbs since the day when one of the cats broke a lamp, and ran in with a piece of broken light bulb as a present for me. Since these bulbs contain mercury, I don't want them where the cats get mercury on their mouths or paws. I recycle, I am not a vegetarian, and I can rarely make it to a farmer's market because there are few in Queens and I usually work Saturdays. I decided not to join a CSA since there are none where I work and I would have to take time off from work to pick up my order at a distant location.

Tonight I will be attending a Jane Jacobs Forum lecture at the Municpal Art Society about urban farming:

Tomorrow will be my first post where I discuss David Owen's views on urban farms as well as what I've gathered from my own research and the lecture.