David Owen’s amazingly prescient and clear-eyed book from 2009, The Green Metropolis, deconstructs exactly what city planners, environmentalists, and the general population get right about cities… and what they get very, very wrong.

His book offers staggeringly simple reasons to rethink how we approach the twin questions of:

  • “Are cities good or bad for the environment?” and
  • “Cars… OMG?”

His answers are:

  • Very, very, very good, and
  • Yes, cars, OMG.

His arguments, citing a veritable mountain of statistical evidence laid bare in his clear, concise writing, chronicles the rise, fall, rebirth, and future of human cities since the invention of the automobile. He argues that these high-density urban environments are not only more environmentally green, but actually shift the entire conversation from cars and drivers back to fundamental quality-of-life issues for all humans, from the very young to the elderly, and how best to satisfy them.

Owens’ three basic themes are clear: live smaller, live closer, and drive less. Examining what many view as North America’s most un-environmental hub – Manhattan – through his data, it’s easy to be persuaded. The examples speak loud and clear: cities can be our salvation… if only we let them. From traditional environmentalists to traffic engineers, many of the major parties involved in cities and environmental thinking are pursuing strategies that are inadvertently leading to even further environmental harm. The world in general is undergoing a major transition from rural to urban areas, and even in the midst of this monumental change we must step back with clear eyes and reconfigure our way of life for the future.

One reason he fixates on Manhattan so much is that it has the benefit of being designed and heavily populated before our collective focus turned to cars, and how to get cars from one place to another. Indeed, Owens notes that from Henry Ford to Frank Lloyd Wright, the automobile has largely been thought of a way to get out of cities. This book concludes that our future as humans on this planet will be mostly urban, and that our biggest environmental goals must be to make city-life more “appealing and life-enhancing.” The design attitudes of the past are incompatible. Until very recently, Americans were ahead of the game, expending energy and carbon in massive quantities – but the rest of the world saw it, and they liked it. The emulation of American cities (primarily cities designed for cars) is global and an ecological disaster in progress – it is much easier for cities and people to adapt to cars than for a car culture to revert to other modes of transport.

In this essay I’ll tackle the themes identified by David Owens as ‘Best Practices’ for city living and design, and compare them to one of the SE Asia’s fastest developing cities, and my current home: Ho Chi Minh City.

Live Smaller, Live More

David Owens’ first point is that we need to double down on living in more efficient spaces and increase the quality of life within them.

As the population ticks ever higher, we have less room than we ever did before, but the good news is that humans don’t need extensive, cavernous personal spaces. This is something I’ve discovered first-hand from traveling and living in Vietnam. I live in a very, very small room in a house with 6 roommates total. Although it’s slightly larger than the glass broom closets across the hall, it’s still smaller than any bedroom I’ve ever inhabited. At various points I’ve grown tired of this and longed for more personal space… but I always put those plans aside because life in a smaller space is actually cheaper, greener, healthier, and simpler.

Traditional Vietnamese families, even in big cities, often exemplify this efficient use of home space – houses are filled to the brim with family members. The fabric of family life is tightly woven and inclined to be self-contained to a certain degree, both within the house, and then within the neighborhood. For instance, children don’t typically visit other people’s houses to play since most families will have at least one family member at home at all times (weird, to this American kid). Furthermore, some parts of HCMC have been traditionally dense, and many are getting denser, but in a different way from places like Manhattan (which at approx. 67,000 people/square mile, is downright mind-boggling).

Several aspects of traditional Vietnamese construction are inherently green. Lots are typically small and buildings have a very small footprint, concrete cools and heats efficiently and is sourced and produced regionally, most are relatively open-air which reduces need for AC or heating (especially in the South), and have little in the way of inefficient modern appliances.

However, as Vietnam’s GDP increases and the country continues its push to modernize, the wasteful American way of life beckons, and wealthy and newly-middle class Vietnamese families have been building their own “McMansions” on the outskirts of HCMC for a decade now, with no end in sight. Their complaints are familiar ones: too many people, not enough nature. Sprawl has come to Vietnam, and it threatens this city more than average, due to its location on the Delta. HCMC is the world’s fourth most threatened city by climate change. Although the optics of Vietnamese in huge, “fancy” houses are great, it’s the city centers, with their bustle of daily activity and densely stacked tube houses holding large numbers of people, where carbon footprints and energy consumption are lowest, and where any major environmental initiatives can protect and elevate quality of life for the greatest number of citizens.

As Owens notes ”City families live more compactly, do less damage to fragile ecosystems, burn less fuel, build stronger social ties to larger numbers of people, and, most significantly, produce fewer children, since large families have less economic utility in dense urban settings than they do in marginal agricultural areas.” Like I said, this book hits the nail on the head roughly every 200 words. Although this seems like obvious advice, the disconnect between our brain and our instincts is well-documented – we are so frequently our own worst enemy. Just as Walt Kelly, who, 60 years ago, produced perhaps the single best philosophical argument against humanity ever seen in popular art: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Indeed, Pogo… indeed.

Living Closer and the Perils of Zoning Laws

Owens begins his takedown of zoning problems with a powerful call to action: “The world, not just the United States, needs to pursue land-use strategies that promote high-density, mixed-use urban development, rather than sprawl.”

Living closer means closer to work, play, eating, shopping, and basic needs. In a dense city these are usually close by and very accessible, by walking, biking, or public transportation. For instance, there are dozens, if not 100 or more, hospitals in HCMC, and spread fairly equally across the metropolitan area (although HCMC doesn’t provide full hospital services at each location – specialities, such as allergies or mental health, are often confined to one or two specific campuses). This type of density, extremely mixed-used on a city-wide scale, creates a stimulating and exciting urban environment that goes far to provide all of life’s necessities nearby. Virtually every Vietnamese neighborhood in HCMC is a walkable neighborhood. [Note that I’m not endorsing the quality of care that these hospitals provide, having never been, but they are available.] Startlingly, part of this development of this neighborhood is due to the lack of zoning regulations.

For a family living on the outskirts of HCMC or in the country, the absolutely critical energy dump is not the car or motorbike (regardless of its mileage) – it’s everything that the vehicle makes available. Vehicles come with a lot of unintended and expensive accessories – bigger houses, yards with thirsty gardens, new feeder roads, the residential streets, upkeep and maintenance, city services, and, most problematically, the expansion and inefficient use of the power grid. The fundamental environmental issue here is that “automobiles have enabled us to create a way of life that cannot be sustained without automobiles.”

Being able to efficiently meet your needs as a pedestrian is vitally linked to mixed-use development, which is on full display in Vietnam (at least for Vietnamese). The most common living situation is a family house, where the ground floor (first floor for us Americans) is the garage and a focused business. Owens’ observes that “[i]f you dilute the concentration of people and destinations, walking stops.” It’s really no coincidence that the advent of the suburbs and exurbs in American culture is coinciding with generations beset by obesity – there’s simply nothing within walking distance of the vast majority of American homes and when this happens… walking simply vanishes as an option. Living closer is a way not only to revitalize our neighborhood, but to improve our health and happiness.

Zoning laws are an excellent example of shooting ourselves in the foot before we’ve even gotten out the door. It is difficult-to-impossible to walk in virtually any small-to-midsize modern American community because of the stifling effect of zoning, and this loss of walking – a healthy cultural habit now in danger of extinction. Interestingly,

In the beginning, of course, it was supposed to help: these laws would prevent thoughtless development and provide more trees and greenery. But, oh my god, what a misfire. The actual effect of zoning has had the opposite effect on our communal areas. “Zoning tends to fully separate residential and commercial uses, to move buildings farther apart and farther from streets and sidewalks, to force low-density development by limiting building height and lot coverage, and to require the creation of oversized parking facilities, which move buildings still farther apart, usually making them inaccessible to anyone who isn’t driving.” This, my friends, is a great example of a colossal, totally unintentionally mess. We tried to do the right thing, to turn our cities into attractive, pleasing spaces, and yet we actually made a home where we’re trapped in a car the entire time – sometimes using it simply as portable air conditioning during transport between single-use buildings. These new zoning laws have effectively outlawed density, and increasing population density is the only sure-fire way to reach the threshold where walking, biking, and public transportation is more efficient than driving.

Traditional Vietnamese life tends to naturally finds this neighborhood balance, and I believe there’s much we can learn from how they do this. Walking, biking, and motorbikes coexist in a tenuous truce, although as the city preps to unveil its public metro system in 2018, government policies have been aimed at stymying motorbike growth in favor of cars (and to the detriment of everyone else using streets). Virtually any alleyway in HCMC will display a scene of vital urban life, with minimal dependence on cars (motorbikes, however, are a subject for another day). These alleys provide a valuable model of how to sustain large populations in small areas, and they’re enjoyable and pleasant places to live, even as a foreigner.

Drive Less, Be Healthier

Keeping in the general theme of the book (summed up as “holy sh*t, cars, what have we wrought”), the obvious solution to up density and be greener is simply to live near your work, or work near your home – and ditch the car for all but the most necessary trips. It’s very boring, but very effective. In places where we’ve effectively eliminated any other mode of transportation, that’s a problem… but it’s one that most cities don’t have. Work and play are often within walking distance, and there’s public transpo to beef up the system.

It’s not enough to drive a car with better milage. In his usual clear-eyed form, Owens’ eviscerates the love we feel for our fuel-efficient alternative vehicles – it’s not that vehicles are too wasteful, but the fact that they enable so much environmental waste and damage. Frankly, it’s much too easy for people to spread out with the help of motor vehicles. Making vehicles cheaper or easier to procure, or making driving in cities more pleasant is a powerful incentive to drive – the solution instead must be making driving as horrible and infuriating as possible.

We clearly are not able to walk everywhere we need to go, but as pedestrians, we can make an impact on the quality of driving in cities. Owens suggests that “Building a gorgeous transit system is not enough to make people use it in large numbers; you also have to make the alternatives bleak, by increasing costs, impeding car traffic, and eliminating lanes and parking spaces.” I am crushing on this idea so hard. He notes that people will rarely use transit unless they feel they must, and traffic engineers who are mainly concerned with increasing the desirability of driving are constantly waging invisible war against everything that’s not a car.

One method that SE Asia uses to great effect to keep cars in order (it’s less effective for motorbikes, given their size and speed) is that street-level is typically a bonkers madhouse, a perfect example of traffic-calming that Owens calls a ‘shared-space’ system. Pedestrians, children, deliveries, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, city services, and salespeople are ubiquitous, not to mention the thousands of pop-up cafes, restaurants, services, and more. All of these are useful in convincing drivers that alternate methods of transport are more interesting, cheaper, and easier. Indeed, driving anywhere in my immediate neighborhood is much less convenient than taking the time to walk, if simply because by walking you are effectively in a different world – one in which traffic avoids you and you can see for yourself the vast array of services and food available, which encourages further use.

In the end, cities always need one thing: a surface-transportation system that includes trucks (large trucks make high-density achievable, after all), buses, cabs, bikes, motorbikes, bicyclists, and pedestrians all interacting safely, while gradually shrinking space solely devoted to vehicles.

One topic Owens’ briefly visits is local food. Somehow we became fascinated with local food and the idea that it’s sensible for urban citizens to become locavores by growing their own crops, eliminating waste generated by transport. This is yet another fallacy that, at first glance, makes total sense, but as the author drily notes, “Any conceivable benefit to be gained by shrinking the distance between the production and the consumption of particular food items would be more than negated by the inefficiencies inherent in increasing the distance between other human uses, and by the necessity of creating and maintaining the wasteful infrastructure needed to support them. If farming in skyscrapers makes agricultural sense, then, by all means, let’s do it—but not in places where the environment would be served better by stacking people rather than crops. Vertical farming in Manhattan would make the city less green, not more. You can’t save the world by trying to make dense urban areas more like the country. On the contrary.

In a few short paragraph he absolutely bulldozes the argument I’d previously used in favor of urban farming (proximity). I’m not even upset, I’m just impressed. And persuaded.

Unfortunately, Oil = Liquid Civilization

Looking behind the automobiles, Owens lays it out simply: “Every serious discussion of the environment—every book, every documentary, every television news report, every magazine article, every lecture, every dire warning—is ultimately about oil, whether it specifically mentions oil or not.” Uf-da… no one wants to talk about it, but we might as well get it out of our system.

His summation of wind and solar energies are necessarily limited to the time of publishing, but there are elements of truth that we can still use. Oil is, essentially, the most efficient energy-storage medium on Earth. In fact, even after being buried deep underground for millions of years, they lose none of their charge, all of which originated on the sun. Furthermore, oil is portable! It’s a very different way of thinking about oil, and it makes it easier to compare to other energy production methods, as well as pointing out just how convenient and special it really is in the context of human civilization.

Comparing watts produced makes this distinction starkly astounding. Oil itself replaces a ridiculously vast amount of physical human effort. I’ll let Owens describe the math: “A healthy, well-fed laborer, working eight hours a day, can produce an average output of something like 75 or 100 watts of useful work; a diesel-powered machine, operating at 40 percent thermal efficiency, can produce 75 or 100 watt hours of work from a few tablespoonfuls of fuel. If you could capture all the energy in a typical barrel of crude oil—42 gallons, 5.8 million BTUs—and convert it into forty-hour human workweeks, it would be the equivalent of several years’ worth of one man’s moderately strenuous manual exertion.”

He follows up by talking about the idea of specialization within human society, something that has been only possible because of oil. Oil is literally liquid civilization: we are what we insist on burning, and this is true from Vietnam to America to the International Space Station.

“Most of us think of our careers as the products of choice: I chose to be a journalist, you chose to be a lawyer, your friends and siblings and children chose to be plumbers and farmers and doctors and actors and carpenters and factory workers and truck drivers and college professors. In reality, though, our careers are mainly the products of fossil fuels. I am able to sit at a desk all day, staring at a computer screen and being distracted by e-mail, televised golf, and online bridge, because coal, oil, and natural gas are out there somewhere, doing my share of the heavy lifting. A manual laborer producing 100 watts’ worth of physical work for eight hours a day, 365 days a year, would have an average work output of 33 watts; a typical North American, by comparison, consumes energy at an average rate of 12,000 watts. Most of that difference—between 33 and 12,000—is made up by fossil fuels.”

(Additionally, because oil is a global market and we live in an interconnected world, it matters very little what share of your “personal” watts come from nuclear or other sources. In other words, you can be the greenest citizens of the greenest country on Earth, but we’re all in the same leaky boat.)

These are unbelievable figures, and he succeeds wildly in altering the perspective we have of our individual energy usage and consumption. While Owens omits alternative sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, these account for a pretty small portion of our global energy generation, even 6 years later, although renewable technologies have progressed leaps and bounds. Elon Musk has just given the market a huge goose with his Powerwall home batteries, seemingly designed for a future fueled by sun and wind and able to store and provide energy even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Tesla’s other, more famous product isn’t so green, however: electric cars and plug-in hybrids will only increase, not end, our need for fossil fuels. They will add to a nation’s overall electrical load and increase our need for generating capacity. Ironically (or not), the vast majority of the electricity generated to power these vehicles will be produced by burning natural gas and coal.

Vietnam’s energy is currently very cheap (about $.076 cents KWH), but their government has actively been pursuing looming environmental issues in an attempt to modernize its infrastructure and minimize the damage the country could possibly face from rising sea levels (especially). As SE Asian cities barrel into the future, their energy choices will inevitably affect all of us.

The Future

The world is urbanizing quickly, and Owens’ book is a compelling argument for dense and interesting urban cores. As China, India, Brazil, and others rapidly expand, we are uniquely situated to predict the future – America has already gone down the road, and it turned out to be less good in the long-term than we had hoped. These nations are also the ones with the most to lose as they follow the worst of America’s examples – their economies stand to benefit substantially from shifting from oil to alternative sources of energy. No matter what happens around us, one truth is that one day we will run out of oil affordable to us 7 billion plebs. But, increasingly, it’s not just individual governments who stand to lose it all – globalization continues apace and we are all interconnected, now more than ever.

At its most fundamental, Owens’ book decries the tendency of humans to be driven by our gut in the presence of contradictory evidence. The two professions that receive the brunt of it are traffic engineers and traditional environmentalists, and because he demolishes them so fantastically, I’ll conclude with his thoughts on the subject of the immutability of human .

He defines traditional environmentalists as those focused on roping off as much unspoiled land as possible and preserving it. These people ignore the obvious environmental benefits of city life, viewing it instead as unnatural, dirty, stressful, and not worthy of attention – they might be right, but they’re neglecting the global picture. It’s less significant what a company does with its recyclable paper than how its employees get to and from work, and how and where they go for lunch. Again, it’s the odometer, not the milage, that counts.

The actual job of traffic engineers is to put more cars on the road and make driving more pleasant. This increases in more drivers wanting to use those roads, and the problem arises, over and over. Think of it, an entire profession mired in an existential road to nothing and nowhere.

He concludes by excoriating environmentalists, again, as well as architects, planners, designers, and basically everyone including your mom: “[E]nvironmentalists tend to focus on defending the places where people aren’t rather than on intelligently organizing the places where people are; architects are necessarily concerned with individual buildings rather than with the efficient functioning of entire neighborhoods, cities, or regions; land-use officials and urban planners are hobbled by a regulatory framework that was designed to suit cars; traffic engineers tend to focus on making life better for drivers rather than on making life better in general; politicians are constrained in their ability to pursue long-term goals by the necessity of being elected; venture capitalists oversell supposedly green technologies that have little chance of accomplishing anything beyond enriching their inventors and investors; even the very most promising-seeming ideas have a discouraging history of turning out, in the end, to have been misguided.

These are not intractable problems, but they are massive, and we’re going to have to work very hard indeed to overcome our human tendency to turn everything into a quagmire from which none of us can escape.

Our continued prosperity in the future is not assured. We must continue to find ways to entice construction and growth back to city centers, where they can be easily absorbed and the benefits of density realized by the greatest numbers of people. We also have to shift our thinking of cities as environmental disasters and focus on the things that make them extraordinarily appealing: quality-of-life concerns are central to urban residents and are key to bringing population growth to a place least likely to exacerbate existing or future critical environmental problems.

Ultimately, the American example was a potent one, and remains appealing to people all over the world, even as the costs (physical, monetary, and emotional) have pushed many of America’s most vulnerable beyond the breaking point – a point perhaps reflected in population movements in America over the past five years, which seem to indicate a tentative renaissance in city centers.

A book this witty, this interesting, and this well-able to break down such a complex subject (spanning as it does everything from oil to transportation to practical quality-of-life issues) is difficult to come by, especially for this sci-fi junkie. If you’re at all interested in the future, or you’ve ever calculated your carbon footprint online, this is required reading.


Further Interconnected Notes on HCMC, maybe for future essays:

[If you’ve gotten this far, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed it! I have. Let’s just remember my first draft was 11 pages and leave it at that…]

  1. Income Inequality is an extremely pressing issue in Vietnam, and is especially visible in the cities.
  2. Motorbikes. Oh man, the motorbikes/Cars/Trucks/Buses/Subway situation. It is something else, and it would be criminal not to look at it closer someday soon. The stats are astonishing.
  3. HCMC is a large area of land, much of which is relatively rural, but it also distorts density figures.
  4. Stats perceived as negative to the State are rumored to be occasionally distorted or eliminated.
  5. Zoning laws are opaque and only sporadically enforced, leading both to really walkable neighborhoods in some cases, and decimating walkability in others – the most “attractive” new type of development is single-use office buildings or apartments.