I have a utopian fantasy, and unlike many visions of the future, it doesn’t have anything to do with flying cars or silver jumpsuits. Mine looks a lot like my home today, in fact, and if it were to come to pass, our environmental woes would vanish in a hurry.
Manhattan Island, where I live, covers 23.7 square miles and holds roughly a million and a half residents. That’s about half of 1 percent of the population of the United States. In other words, 200 Manhattans would hold just about all of us in an area smaller than Connecticut. And in my imagination, they do. Everyone in America moves to a dense urban environment, to live in skinny townhouses or high-rises. Nobody has to own a car, though some people do, and others buy them to share in groups of four or six. Mass transit rules, and much of our tax money goes to keeping the infrastructure of this supermegalopolis humming. Energy consumption per capita is a lot lower than it is today, because big blocks of buildings retain heat, and because people live in small spaces and drive less.
The outskirts of this giant city are devoted to its support — the power plants, factories, and airports that demand too much space for the urban grid. The outskirts of the outskirts are, in turn, farmland; those Americans who just can’t stand living in close quarters, the ones who really love rural life, can embrace that existence, raising organic food, for which they will be well paid (because so much wealth will be concentrated in the megacity, and so little will be spent on, say, airlifting tomatoes from California to Boston). The tight urban grid means consumption and circulation patterns will be predictable, so that rail, rather than exhaust-spewing trucks, brings in most of our consumer goods.
The rest of the country — something like 45 states’ worth! — is reverted to wilderness. The prehistoric tallgrass of the Great Plains grows back. So does the forest of the Northwest, since we’re not building stickframe houses anymore. When people yearn for wideopen space, they can visit a national park and stand agape as they think about how close we came to denuding an entire continent of such marvels.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this mega-Manhattan is going to exist, ever. (For one thing, the people who say New York City is “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” would consider it the seventh circle of hell.) But it surprises me that idealized planned communities through the years, from Columbia, Maryland, to Celebration, Florida, have focused on the small-town picket-fence ideal. To me, the supreme American achievement is not Main Street (as pretty as those white picket fences can be) but Bleecker Street— a messy and vital part of the multitentacled, impossible- to-stop creature that bred Teddy Roosevelt and Sonny Rollins and Lou Gehrig, the Woolworth Building and the George Washington Bridge, Rosemary’s Baby and Annie Hall.
And if the habits of Americans are any indicator, city life is booming as never before. Middle America is losing population while rents in Los Angeles, New York, and other big cities explode. A migration to the coasts is already underway, and city life—long perceived as dissipated and crime-ridden — has acquired a glamorous new image. You can argue over why, but what these folks are seeking is fundamentally a higher quality of life, especially if that life does not involve an hour and a half spent sitting in traffic every day. A desire to avoid isolation and accept the pleasures of communal life — especially without the grubby details that often exist on an actual commune — is also part of leading an eco-friendly existence. Sharing resources is better for the planet than holing up on one’s own.
But what people want, versus what benefits the common good, is, of course, what dooms my little scheme. It eliminates one’s ability to choose where and how to live — something that violates the American ideal in a most basic way. In short, we would all have to agree to a pact: In exchange for ceding the pleasures of your own backyard, we receive the implicit promise that Earth will be kept temperate and habitable for a long time to come.
Would you give up your back porch or your basement to save the planet? Think about it — maybe while you’re stuck in traffic.
Story by Christopher Bonanos. Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York magazine. He lives in a very tall apartment building.
This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.