Berlin as a Sustainable City

Niti Bhan on Berlin as a sustainable city:

Berlin is to an environmentally conscious, renewable energy, sustainable ecologically friendly lifestyle what Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls used to be to fast fashion. The pioneer, the path breaker, the evidence of quality of life balanced with conservation. I envy Berliners their city. It is a world city and its still affordable.

This brought to mind David Owen’s 2004 article in The New Yorker, Green Manhattan, where he wrote:

Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.

Anyplace that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an environmental disaster—except that it isn’t,” John Holtzclaw, a transportation consultant for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “If New Yorkers lived at the typical American sprawl density of three households per residential acre, they would require many times as much land. They’d be driving cars, and they’d have huge lawns and be using pesticides and fertilizers on them, and then they’d be overwatering their lawns, so that runoff would go into streams.” The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan’s population density is more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into.

Our own experience bears this out: when we lived in the country in the mid-1990s, having gone “back to the land” in as tepid and suburban a way as humanly possible, we drove our car almost every day, and were back and forth to Charlottetown or Cornwall frequently. The only place we could reasonably walk or cycle was Clow’s General Store, and even that was a stretch. We lived in a largely non-insulated house that took huge amounts of oil to heat.

Since moving to the city in 2000 our car stays parked most days and we walk or cycle frequently; my commute, across the street to my office, takes 35 seconds. Our home–only slightly more insulated than our country home, admittedly–is sheltered on two sides by larger homes, and thus is less exposed to the elements. Our lawn is small, and easily mowed with an electric mower. We’d be even lighter on the land, of course, if we moved into an apartment and didn’t occupy what, in global terms, is a huge amount of space; but compare to suburban lots, ours is relatively tiny.