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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Living in a green 'hood Add to ...

Not to brag about it, but my husband and I have adopted a radical new green lifestyle. We've shrunk our living space, cut our energy bills in half and dramatically reduced our carbon footprint. These days, we walk everywhere. We shop at the (organic) grocery store and bring our food back in a bundle buggy. To get to work, I have a transit pass. I rarely drive our car at all any more.

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Have I had a conversion experience? Not exactly. All we did was swap our house and spacious yard for a high-rise condo in midtown Toronto. Being environmentally conscientious was the last thing on our minds. But now, I've learned, we are at least as green as David Suzuki, maybe greener.

"The greenest community in North America is New York City," points out David Owen, an environmental thinker with a contrarian turn of mind. His new book, Green Metropolis, argues that urban density, more than any other factor, is the key to sustainability. Never mind your recycling, your solar panels or your righteous compost heaps. If you want to cut your carbon footprint, move downtown and throw your garbage down the chute.

"It's like living in Manhattan," we've been gushing to our friends. Many of them are horrified that we've moved to condo-land. But it turns out that Manhattanites drive, pollute, consume and throw away far less than anybody else. On a per-capita basis, their carbon footprint is 70 per cent less than the North American average. (They are also far more fit.) By comparison, Vermonters - who regard themselves as dedicated environmentalists - are carbon hogs.

What makes our new 'hood so green? It's not the parks. People live in smaller spaces that are closer together, so they're far more efficient to heat. (Our neighbour's condo helps heat ours, and vice-versa.) And they don't use cars much. Walking and public transit are just as convenient, often more so. (In Manhattan, traffic is so bad that people in a hurry walk or take the subway.)

David Owen is a big fan of traffic congestion, because it discourages people from driving. On that score, he has a semi-serious suggestion for groups like the Nature Conservancy. Instead of buying up wild spaces in remote areas, they should buy up downtown parking lots and build high-rises on top. "You need to make driving as unpleasant as possible in every way," he says.

David Suzuki lives in Vancouver's Kitsilano, which is densely populated too. He walks and bikes to get around. But I take a lot of elevators, which are inherently efficient people-movers. Mr. Suzuki was the first person in Canada to get a Prius. I have a (mini) SUV. But don't give me a hard time for it. What matters is less how fuel-efficient my car is than how much I drive it. In fact, Mr. Owen argues that making cars more fuel-efficient is counterproductive, because it has exactly the same effect as lowering the price of fuel. The whole idea is to make driving as inefficient as possible.

Mr. Suzuki jets around the country promoting his environmental message. He buys carbon offsets to greenwash his air miles. I won't hold that against him, even though I am convinced that carbon offsets are a racket. His biggest problem is that his vision of a sustainable future is not sustainable at all.

In this vision, people live close to nature, in simple, self-sufficient small communities (preferably solar-powered), eating locally grown, organic food. It is the opposite of the noisy, chaotic, densely packed and highly specialized big city, which happens to be the most energy-efficient way of organizing large populations yet invented. It looks more like, say, Saltspring Island, a low-density, über-eco-conscious paradise where very few people get to live.

And that's where most environmentalists go wrong. Their back-to-nature ethos actually encourages sprawl. Even the most environmentally sensitive house on Saltspring Island is a hugely inefficient place to live. They may eat local goat cheese over there, but they've got to drive a long way to get it. The trouble is that when people decide to escape the big city, they drag an entire energy-heavy infrastructure after them. When you move to the country, you basically move into your car.

"The environmental movement is deeply stained with a sort of Malthusian current," Mr. Owen says. "It's anti-urban, anti-industrial, agrarian, primitivist." Locavorism (a movement that Mr. Suzuki fervently promotes) is inherently anti-environmental too. Locavores are a sprawl generator. If we all decided to eat local, we'd have to plow up all our remaining green space just to feed ourselves.

My biggest environmental sin is not that I still own an SUV. It's that I drive it to the country every weekend so we can get back to nature. Once we're there, we drive another six or seven miles to the farmer's market and back, and another 10 or 20 miles to visit all our nature-loving friends. Our winter heating bill is enormous. We make our own honey and grow some of our own vegetables, at an approximate cost (including mortgage payments) of $12.98 per tomato. It's nice to get back to the land, but I have new respect for the remarkable efficiencies of agribiz.

The world's population will grow by another 2 billion before long. Where will we put them? Not on Saltspring Island. The most energy-efficient answer is to multiply and intensify our dense urban spaces. The efficiencies of big cities are built in, and don't depend on a sudden transformation of human nature. As David Owen puts it, the most altered landscapes in the world are probably the most planet-friendly.

And if we really want Toronto, for instance, to be more green, we should forget about feel-good stuff like banning plastic bags and coffee-cup lids. We should ban right turns on red lights. We should get rid of high-occupancy lanes and encourage pedestrians to jaywalk. Anything to make driving more difficult. Next, we need to roll right over the NIMBYs who don't want condos in their backyard, and build more of them. We should encourage all the things (culture, restaurants, and vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods) that make people want to live downtown. Those things make me love being green. And besides, I've lost weight.

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