David Owen’s Green Metropolis was really about six articles mashed together nicely in a hardbound book about sustainable cities.  If that sounds as if it is a slight, it’s not.  This really challenged some conventional wisdom that exists about the green/sustainable movement in the U.S.

Most importantly, it was a strong defense of dense city living as a better indicator of a sustainable lifestyle.  Owen makes a strong case, though he over-relies on Manhattan as his example.  The recap: people who live in dense cities use less energy, drive less often, consume less, walk more, and tend to have more efficient buildings.  Surprised?  I was a bit, but when you think about it, Owen makes sense.

Individuals in NYC use far less energy per person than many others throughout the U.S.–in some cases because their apartments are smaller, but also because then tend to be closer and “borrow” energy from other apartments.  NYC has the highest percentage of users of public transit–cars are useless in Manhattan.  And the density leads to more sustainable development–smaller buildings in a walkable community.

Owen drips with sarcasm describing a supposedly “green” office park in Kansas that houses Sprint’s headquarters.  It’s loaded with trendy green energy savers, but it requires nearly all of its employees to drive to the location.  It is far from the airport and close to nothing.  It may be a “greener” building, but it does nothing but facilitate a “brown” lifestyle.

The author saves special barbs for the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program.  I admit, I thought this program was supposed to be a great indicator of a building’s sustainable qualities.  But Owen makes great points that LEED rewards the type of unsustainable, sprawling development which leads to a lifestyle that is more consumption-focused.  The cottage industry that is LEED building is really a joke.

I have my hands in the sustainability conversation at my company pretty often, so this book was a perspective-changer for me.  It is easy to focus on little projects, but a real trend toward a sustainable lifestyle is much more difficult.  It involves changing the way we live, changing our purchasing habits, and thinking about sustainability in a much different way.   The book presents an interesting counterpoint to those who think sustainable lifestyles are found only in places like Portland, Boulder, and some cottage in the middle of upstate New York.  A dense urban location like NYC can be just as sustainable, if not more.

We do just ok with our lifestyle.  Our house is small, we don’t drive very far to work (though we could and should car pool or take the bus more often).  We are in an urban environment and avoid sprawl.  But we consume too much and could still use less energy.  I liked the book most of all because it confirmed that living in a city–and not a suburb–is likely the most sustainable choice.