Required Reading: Green Metropolis

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, by David Owen, should be required reading for anyone working or providing input in the transportation, city planning and energy – specifically, sustainability – spaces.

After finishing the book earlier this year, I wrote the author the email below to express my appreciation. I’m including my email here because it serves as a nice nice introduction and summary of my key takeaways.

Hi, David – My name is Adam and I wanted to say thank you for writing the book Green Metropolis. I consider it a breathe of fresh air in an otherwise smoggy sustainability conversation.

I came across your book referenced in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City – which I read (and also loved) a couple years ago.

While Walkable City changed the way I viewed urban design, transportation and the role of the city in our lives, Green Metropolis connected many of those concepts to energy and changed the way I view sustainability.

I am closely connected to these topics both as an employee at a power and water utility (Salt River Project, in Phoenix, AZ; note: I am speaking for myself here), an MBA student at Arizona State University (where we recently completed a sustainability course…), and as a native, and disgruntled, resident of sprawling, car-dependent metro Phoenix.

In Phoenix, I see so much effort, money, time and passion for sustainability concentrated in the wrong direction: a light rail that stretches the city, moves slower than cars and cannibalizes the already fledgling bus system; massive houses with multiple air conditioners, lush yards and swimming pools, that employ solar panels, electric vehicles, and recycling to offset their excessive, expensive behavior; and traffic-reduction strategies that hinge on more lanes and more highways (instead of fewer vehicles).

… I wanted to … express my appreciation for your writing, and the level-headed, clear and concise way you tackled these complicated, emotional, far-reaching and contentious issues.


Mr. Owen got right back to me, thankful for my note, and even graciously sent me a copy of his latest book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, which I devoured on my trip to China.

I might be biased, considering my close ties to the energy industry; however, I think this book can help anyone interact, support and contribute to their cities and sustainability in an informed and smart way.

I’ve given copies of this book to colleagues, mentioned it to strangers, recommended it to professors and have plugged it more than any other book I can remember.

Furthermore, if you combine Green Metropolis, with Walkable City, and the Jane Jacobs classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, you’ll probably be the most informed and practical thinker about city planning and urban development in the room.

I hope you read these books, enjoy them as much as I did, and share them with your friends.

I wrote a book review of Walkable City a while back, along with a rant about how Phoenix is doing it wrong.

In case you need more convincing, or if you don’t have the time to read the books just yet, here are some quotes and key points I noted as I read Green Metropolis and The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“Uninhibited car use invariably undermines the noblest of environmental intentions – always, everywhere.” — Green Metropolis

“The car’s role in our ongoing environmental crisis goes far beyond the direct burning of gasoline, however. Cars don’t just use energy themselves; they also raise energy consumption in all forms and in all categories, with the usual environmental consequences, by enabling people to live in ways that are unavoidably inefficient.” — Green Metropolis

“Spread people too thinly and sort them too finely, and they cease to interact; move them and their daily activities closer together, and the benefits cascade…” — Green Metropolis, citing Jane Jacobs.

“Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less, then doubling the efficiency of their cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it is accompanied by an offsetting increase in driving – and the standard reaction of American drivers to decreases in the cost of driving, historically, has been to drive more…[See Jevons’ Paradox:] In 1865, observed that coal consumption had increased, rather than declined, following the introduction of steam engines that used less of it.” — Green Metropolis

“Streets and parking spaces are the air inside the sprawl balloon.” — Green Metropolis

“If you go out to the streets of Phoenix and are able to see anybody walking – which you likely won’t – they are going to tell you that they love living in Phoenix because they have a beautiful house and three cars. In reality, though, once the conversation goes a little bit further, they are going to say that they spend most of their time at home watching TV, because there is absolutely nothing to do.” — Green Metropolis, Ignacio San Martin, head of the graduate urban design program at the University of Arizona.

“Between 1950 and 1990, the population of Phoenix grew by 819 percent, while its density fell by 63 percent…For transit to have a chance of working in a place like Phoenix, it has to be concentrated in areas that are dense enough to make it efficient, and it has to be thought of as a tool for further increasing the density of those areas, thereby reinforcing its own usefulness and reducing the city’s overall dependence on automobiles. Transit, when used that way, can help reduce the entropy of traditional real estate development, by turning its focus inward.” — Green Metropolis

“To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes,  but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

“The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make…All four in combination are necessary to generate city diversity; the absence of any one of the four frustrates a district’s potential.” — The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“It may be romantic to search for the salves of society’s ills in slow-moving rustic surroundings, or among innocent, unspoiled provincials, if such exist, but it is a waste of time. Does anyone suppose that, in real life, answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogeneous settlements? … Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” — The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“It is fashionable to suppose that the solution lies in designating certain places for pedestrians, and certain other places for vehicles. We may be able to make such separations eventually, if we find we really want to. But such schemes are only practical, in any case, if they presuppose a spectacular decline in the absolute numbers of automobiles using a city. Otherwise, the necessary parking, garaging and access arteries around the pedestrian preserves reach such unwieldy and deadening proportions that they become arrangements capable only of city disintegration, not of city saving.” — The Death and Life of Great American Cities