Your recent book, The Green Metropolis, highlights the environmental advantages of urban densification – could you explain how this works?
There are tremendous – and I think underappreciated – environmental advantages to urban density. In a city, lots of people live very close together. And when you push people and their destinations closer together, you also shrink their environmental impact.

Cities look big and dirty to a lot of people, but those who live in cities – especially in very large and dense cities – are the world’s only significant public transport users; they live in smaller spaces, own fewer appliances, consume less water, and are the lowest per capita energy consumers.

In a city, your personal space tends to be small. You cannot fill it up with stuff. You do not have a garage to fill with all those things you never use. This is environmentally useful. You simply cannot be as wasteful as when you have the space to spread out.

kamirika/photocase.com
kamirika/photocase.com

So, how can we improve our cities?
Environmentalists, at least in the United States, often look at cities and think – “how can we make a city more like the country? Let’s create more space between the buildings. We will grow crops on the roofs. We will make it less dense.” Such initiatives are wrong-headed; they undermine the very things about cities that make them environmentally valuable.

When we look at cities, the real environmental issues are not windmills or solar panels on roofs, but how to maintain a quality of life for urban dwellers, especially for people with children? So, the real issues are aspects like public education, crime, noise, and recreational opportunities.

particula/ photocase.com
particula/ photocase.com

What about suburbs?
Living in the suburbs is the most wasteful way to live. It’s hard because there is a very natural impulse to move there when you have children, which is what my wife and I did. When you are young and poor, living in a city is great because there is always something to do; you don’t need a car, you can walk to work, there are bars everywhere, all your friends are there. But when you have kids, you decide you need more room, you need a house and then a car … That is when the environmental impact starts to build up.

David Owen at TEDxBerlin 2013, photo: TEDxBerlin/SebastianGabsch
David Owen at TEDxBerlin 2013, photo: TEDxBerlin/Sebastian Gabsch

So, should everyone move to a city because it is better for the environment?
That won’t happen, but if you think about the population of the world increasing by 50 percent between now and mid-century, then it becomes obvious that the world cannot accommodate all those extra people by simply adding three billion somewhere off the grid, living by themselves in the woods in little log cabins with solar panels. That does not scale. Cities do scale. People who live in cities don’t feel things like increases in the price of oil, which had a huge impact on anybody in the United States who depends on an automobile. To people living in New York, it made no difference.

The lower you pile people up, the wider they spread out. When you pile people up high, there are many advantages to that: You can walk to the cinema or to the grocery store. When I lived in NYC, for example, my daughter’s pediatrician was in the lobby of our building; I only had to take the elevator. But once again, as you spread out, your environmental impact increases.

HerrSpecht/ photocase.com
HerrSpecht/ photocase.com

What about countries like China where urbanization is proceeding at a rapid pace?
China is very interesting. People might say: China is the environmental disaster it is because of rapid urbanization. Urbanization is not the cause. The cause is economic growth. If you graph energy consumption and per capita GDP it works like this: As energy goes up, we get richer. And as we get richer, our energy consumption goes up. It is really hard to consume less energy because everything we like about our lives revolves around energy consumption.

uli franke/ photocase.com
uli franke/ photocase.com

So, what steps can we take to reduce our energy consumption?
All the things we love to do, the devices we carry around with us – all those things consume energy. We need to get used to consuming less or at least to doing it more consciously. It is all about achieving the right level of energy consumption. Just think about the lights you forget to turn off when you are leaving the room. If you save just 100 watts, this could transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world.

Interview: Alexandra Schade and Lilly Wolf
Header image: Lilith2000/ photocase.com