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THE VILLAGE, GREEN: Why living smaller, living closer and driving less are the keys to sustainability

by Rick

David Owen beat me to the punch – and the subtitle –  when he published his recent book “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.” He succinctly summarizes the book’s contents in those 15 words. Then he consumes 368 pages on those who need convincing that urban dwellers use fewer resources per capita than suburbanites.

His muse is New York City where residents rely on public transit (due to traffic congestion), live in small apartments with less stuff (due to the cost of real estate) and use less energy to heat and cool (due to all those common walls).

My muses are the 616 other cities and villages that make up the constellation of urban environments across our Empire State. Specifically, I’m talking about the 583 municipal areas that have fewer than 25,000 residents each. A hefty 2.1 million New Yorkers live in these villages and small cities.

 
 

"We are the 2.1 million. And yes, we are also urban dwellers. Village people live smaller, closer and drive less than the nation as a whole."

We are the 2.1 million. And yes, we are also urban dwellers. Village people live smaller, closer and drive less than the nation as a whole. To an increasing extent, we have convenient access to necessities, retail, cultural, arts and recreation opportunities, and ample open space. The villains in Owen’s book are suburbanites, and so-called environmentalists who mock cities for their air pollution, sewer and solid waste disposal challenges, yet would build on virgin land and drive ten miles for every errand. We, the 2.1 million, are part of the solution.

Plug any address into the website walkscore.com, and it provides a walkability rating based on its pedestrian proximity to amenities. I typed in the address of my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He lives in a neighborhood saturated with restaurants and service businesses, groceries and drugstores, a short walk from the waterfront and Brooklyn Bridge Park. On walkscore.com his address rates a 97 out of 100. This level is nicknamed “Walker’s Paradise.”

Then I entered the address of Alberty Drugs on Main Street in Batavia. There are eight restaurants within 150 paces of the door. Nearby residents are a short stroll to shopping, cultural destinations, and green space. Sure enough, on walkscore.com, downtown Batavia scores a “Walker’s Paradise” 98.

And, if you’re looking for a place to live, it is in our villages and small cities that you’ll find room. New York City’s vacancy rate is the lowest in the nation at 2.4%.  Manhattan’s is below 1%. Entire stand-up comedy acts are built around jokes on the legendary difficulty of finding a place to live there.  Not so much in our state’s 583 small cities and villages. Many Western New York and Finger Lakes municipalities have housing availability closer to the 8-10% range.

In an age of mobility, ours are the communities – with a vibrant downtown and affordable housing and access to nature and a track record of reinvestment– that can position themselves to attract the young singles, couples and families that have grown disillusioned with the false promise of the suburbs and whose work gives them the autonomy to choose to live elsewhere.

Even with a head-to-toe rehab, a downtown building or turn-of-the-century home will cost a fraction of the per-square-foot equivalent for a comparable new-build in the suburbs. Recent studies have shown that even built to strict energy-efficiency standards, the amount of embodied energy required to build new will require an average of 80 years before it has paid back its carbon debt, compared to renovating.

All of this means something else that you already know:  Buying or renting is usually more affordable in our villages and small cities, than outside them.

People are recognizing this appeal in increasing numbers. According to the last census, New York’s urban population increased in villages and cities with populations under 25,000. And, it grew in New York City. Where it lost population were in the next four largest cities (including Buffalo and Rochester) whose populations lost 813,000 people. Our small cities and villages under 25,000 gained 12,000. Not a flood, but definitely a trickle. Could this be an indication of greater autonomy from the commuting umbilicus historically tying workers to those urban centers?

We are well on our way towards a flexible economy, where workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs have more freedom to choose where they want to live.  So where are the next million New Yorkers going to live and work? If they choose the “Green Metropolis” of NYC, then good for them (and good luck finding an apartment). But the serious weakness of Owen’s argument is that New York City is not a readily replicable model. At the end of the day, there’s only one Big Apple.

Fortunately, there are 583 Little Apples. For these – our villages and small cities – the promise of a more walkable, sustainable, neighborly, integrated life may be our most marketable asset.

Posted in Finger Lakes Times- Architecture Matters

Rick Hauser