One of the biggest lessons of David Owen’s Green Metropolis — which, yes, I’m still reading, since I had to break to read another book for my book group — is that urban density is a guarantor of efficiency. It doesn’t necessarily feel like Manhattan is a terribly green place — not when you’ve got buses belching in your face, not when the air smells like garbage and bad Chinese food — but those facts of life in New York ensure that no one drives, everyone takes mass transit and walks, and that our living spaces are (generally) small and thus inexpensively heated and cooled. That unconscious efficiency is what makes New York City’s per-capita carbon footprint so stunningly small, but the discomforts described above are also the sort of things that send people sprawling towards notably less efficient suburbs and exurbs. Sure, there are lawns there, but by just about every measurable metric, places like Long Island are hugely un-green. The newly released Long Island Index, funded by the Rauch Foundation, has what looks like a counterintuitive suggestion on how to ameliorate that. Which is that Long Island needs to get denser.
Long Island jokes aside — and as a Jersey-born human and thus a natural enemy of Lawn Gilanduz, this is not easily left aside — people who have been stuck in traffic on the LIE have to wonder how, say, Nassau County could possibly become more dense without actually turning into a black hole. While much of Long Island is ostensibly/ostentatiously suburban, it suffers from the peculiarly dense non-density that afflicts (and renders inefficient) sprawlish developments — oversized homes are surrounded by well-watered yards and connected by miles of roadway around largely empty town centers. The Long Island Index’s novel suggestion, and one that could do much to make this least-green of New York suburbs that much more efficient, is that instead of continuing to sprawl across the few remaining undeveloped acres on the island, the neglected downtowns in towns such as Mineola, Hempstead, Riverhead and Wyandanch be re-developed as mixed commercial/residential communities built around Long Island Railroad stations. Considering that much of Long Island functions as a bedroom community for Manhattan, it makes a certain type of sense to move those bedrooms to within walking distance of the train, right?
But, as Marcelle S. Fischler writes in the New York Times, there’s more to be gained for Long Islanders than convenience. “Such transit-oriented development would increase property tax revenues and be a boost to the local economy,” Fischler writes. “‘If there is a place to invest, it is this type of development,’ [Rauch Foundation President Nancy] Douzinas said. ‘It is not a drain because you don’t have to build a new infrastructure.’ Focusing on new housing in downtowns could also help meet the needs of younger people, who without affordable alternatives are leaving the Island, and empty nesters seeking different options, said Ann Golub, the director of the Long Island Index.” And that, in a nutshell, is how a neighborhood (rather than a subdivision) gets built. Even without considering, Owen’s macro-argument about the relative efficiency of denser neighborhood, there’s a basic logic and efficiency to functioning downtowns, and greater opportunities for green building (and green living) in that setting as well. It’s basic arithmentic that a development in which 25 residents live in garden apartments is more efficient than a mansion with solar panels on the roof, and it will be interesting to see how it all adds up in Long Island. Given that some of Long Island’s counties boast surprisingly forward-thinking green building codes, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some green condominium developments — or even (gasp) adaptive reuse projects — going on in Long Island. Seriously. We may need to retire some of those Long Island jokes.