Posted by: VPSN | March 18, 2011

Density or just Dense: David Owen argues that Manhattan is the Greenest City in North America


Are tall buildings the way to achieve needed density? David Owen & Sam Sullivan argue yes.

Last night, at Vancouver’s Playhouse theatre, staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine, density advocate and contributing editor of Golf Digest, David Owen presented his argument that Manhattan, with its dense urban form, is the Greenest City in North America.  

Following introductory remarks by former Vancouver Mayor and eco-density pioneer Sam Sullivan, Mr. Owen’s talk was largely a retread of his recently published book, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009) and 2004 New Yorker article Green Manhattan Everywhere should be more like New York.  Owen offered evidence that New York Style urban development – vertical, dense and massively scaled – is becoming an environmental necessity.  Mr. Owen’s points included:

  • The increasing cost of energy will force all those but the very wealthy to live in compact walkable urban environments (he himself lives in rural Connecticut).
  • Urban residents use far less energy than their rural counterparts and are less reliant on the automobile.
  • Densely populated cities make public transit more viable.
  • The 100 mile diet (local food) is part of a ‘luxury consumption’ trend that typifies the futile of efforts many western environmentalists.
  • Technological innovation ends up exacerbating environmental problems by making formerly luxury and energy intensive products (e.g. iPad) and services (e.g. air travel) widely available to all socio-economic groups.

Mr. Owen’s message, closely follows that of local density advocate Sam Sullivan. 

Following the presentation Mr. Sullivan lamented not being given the authority during his time in office, to allow developers to build ever higher buildings in Vancouver (which he says would provide housing for both families and the poor).  (As a side note, Sam Sullivan’s colleague out at UBC, Patrick Condon, has made some excellent arguments about the possibility of achieving increased density with low to mid-rise development – thus avoiding the run-to-tower option presented here).

Owen is not without his detractors, James Howard Kunstler amongst them, who view massively scaled condo towers, such as those found in ever greater abundance in Vancouver, as one-generation buildings, ultimately destined for redundancy with little possibility of re-purposing or redevelopment upon their decline.

There are several pointed arguments here and we’re interested to know what people think of the various theses that are contained in Owen’s arguments.   Feel free to weigh in!

– Post by JT


  1. The idea that increased density will solve our housing issues (which I think is what Mr. Sullivan is getting at) gets somewhat hung up on the fact that we’re in a global market…. and in a supply/demand situation with crazy high, potentially unlimited, demand where does that leave us? How many units would have to come online each year for housing prices to drop to a level people with median Vancouver incomes could afford?

    That said, density has a lot of other benefits! I don’t think I could go back to a life where I have to drive every day. I love getting to everything on foot or by transit.

  2. Reposted from VPSN Facebook Commentary:

    Ask Sam Sullivan where he supposes the water would come from to sustain his eco-dense ideas and I’m sure he’ll come up stumped.

    Increased density means increased waste and consumption. Building higher simply ignores the reality that we must also deal with where we’re going to direct the flow from thousands more toilets per square kilometer…. Unfortunately for Ex-Mayor Sullivan, it doesn’t simply disappear like the product of his $9.5M investment of public money into an irrational trolley demonstration.

    – JM

  3. I’m interested if Mr. Owen talked about how the drinking water for NYC is collected hundreds of kilometres away and piped to the city. Did he mention what happens to all the garbage? I have read that all NYC trash is shipped out of state to far off places like Ohio. I hope they don’t barge it out to sea anymore (like the WTC toxic remains).
    Mr. Owen’s has solid points on how high density can reduce energy consumption and transportation but I’d like to know how dense his argument is for all the other resources it takes to run a city. Where does all NYC’s food come from?

  4. The people living in NYC use the same resources and create the same amount of waste as they would if they lived elsewhere…. living in an compact urban form doesn’t create additional resource use/waste, it simply concentrates it geographically.

    Perhaps Adam could elaborate on what his concern is? Is it the energy associated with shipping the resources in and the waste out? Are people living in sprawly suburbs all eating local food and not shipping their waste far away?

  5. LB,
    I was hoping that Mr. Owen could give us hope that composting and recyclng in a dense area like Manhattan is a reality and give Vancouver some advice. With some research, I found out what I suspected – NYC doesn’t hold the answers to waste reduction.
    Robert Lange, Director of New York’s bureau for waste reduction, told the 400 delegates( at MV’s Zero waste conference) of the U.S.’s largest city’s struggles in trying to increase recycling and composting in their dense, multi-family (apartment towers, etc) neighbourhoods.
    New York has a low 17 per cent residential recycling rate in its multi-family neighbourhoods, close to Metro Vancouver’s 16 per cent rate for the same buildings. In contrast, Metro Vancouver’s single-family homes recycle just under 50 per cent of their waste, and strong recycling rates from our region’s construction and demolition industry pull our average recycling rate to 55%.

  6. I have more…
    New York tried for five years to launch organics pick-up but were unsuccessful.
    Lange cited the dense neighbourhoods, lack of storage for scraps between collections, high cost of collection, difficulty marketing the end product, and perceived ‘yuck’ factor from residents as part of their struggles. New York tried for five years to launch food waste pick-up, but ultimately failed. “An apartment dweller has a lot of anonymity,” said Lange. Lange elaborated on why he thought the five year effort had failed. “The hard part in multi-family is where do you store food waste in between collections?” he asked? “You start having odours. You start having vermin problems.”
    New York had tough enforcement as part of their waste reduction plans, including gun-bearing waste-enforcement officers who ticketed residents who put recyclables and compostables in with their garbage. In 2010, officers issued fines totalling $10.1 million to 56,300 repeat offenders. They also issued 38,000 fines of $25 to first-time offenders.

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