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Living green in a crowded city

A new book, published this week, challenges the notion that true “green living” is a country home with a compost heap, photovoltaic panels and an electric car in the driveway.  In Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead Books, $25.95), David Owen argues that the concrete high-rise in cities like New York, Hong Kong and Chicago are greener than all the solar panels, ethanol and open spaces combined.

Because Owen lived in New York City, he uses it to illustrate his point. He writes: “New York is the greenest community in the United States…The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s…Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot…The average New Yorker (if one takes into consideration all five boroughs of the city) annually generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases, a lower rate than that of residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average, which is 24.5 metric tons.”

A “cheat sheet” from the publisher compares “Green” vs. “Not Green.” Green is traffic jams and congested streets, crowded cities, restaurants and move theaters, parking meters, recessions, and urbanization. Not Green is electric cars, single-family homes with solar panels, ethanol, cotton clothing, HOV lanes, biofuels, bicycle lanes, and ecotourism.

“A dense urban area’s greenest features—its low per-capita energy use, its high acceptance of public transit and walking, its small carbon footprint per resident–are not inexplicable anomalies. … those qualities are the ones that the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate as the world’s various ongoing energy and environmental crises deepen and spread in the years ahead. In terms of sustainability, dense cities have far more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns.”

Another recently published book, Living Green: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly, $19.99) by Nancy Conner, offers specific suggestions on what urban, suburban, and rural dwellers “can do every day to live a greener life.”  From discussing how household chemicals can affect our health to what can be done to reduce the amount of waste we produce (the average American produces 1,600 pounds of garbage a year!), Living Green shows how individual, local efforts can address a massive, global problem.

“Doing your part makes a difference because there’s power in numbers,” Conner writes. “Think globally, but act where you can: at home, in your community, at work, and by joining or donating to environmental groups. Educate and encourage others, as well. There more people work together to protect the environment, the bigger impact they’ll have.”

In the Chicago area, high school students spent time during the summer examining just how green or not green the city is. Part of the “Green in the City” project run by Columbia College’s journalism department and funded by Dow Jones, the students covered environmental hazards in Little Village, pollution in Lake Michigan, and landfills and other toxins in the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex. “To the west, south and north of the 190-acre Gardens, several landfills, sewage plants and coke ovens spread their refuse,” wrote Safiya Merchant and Bri’anna Moore in their article that looked at how Altgeld Gardens’ People for Community Recovery organization is striving to revitalize where they live. As Conner states: “There’s no better place to start your quest for greenification than at home—after all, that’s where you have the most control.”

Does the argument that urban living is greener than suburban and urban living make sense? Why or why not? Can a city like Chicago ever truly be green? What does green living mean to you? Can you list some environmental threats to your health? Is green living just hype or is there real value in it? What evidence are you seeing that your friends and neighbors are taking environmental issues seriously? How can you make your life greener?

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