Friday, January 18, 2008

Green Cities: The Benefits of Density

In past blog entries, I have talked about the environmental benefits of sprawl. When people live at low density, this creates a moat effect reducing contagion and exposure risk. I am well aware that people consume more resources when they live a low density. You can read this paper (http://mek1966.googlepages.com/kahn_jpam.pdf) if you don't believe me!

Ed Glaeser and I are writing a paper right now where we will rank U.S cities with respect to their greenhouse gas emissions per-capita and dense cities will rank higher both due to transport and residential energy consumption.

This article highlights another "Green City" benefit of density. Scavengers face lower transaction and transport costs in a big city and less "garbage" ends up in landfills.

This article highlights the efficiency of this market as low value of time guys (i.e bums) sort through the NYC trash and find "gold" and sell it back to the used book stores. So as long as you don't smell the book you are reading (I hope you are not near sighted), this is an efficient market with few negative environmental consequences. In a sprawled city such efficiency would not be possible because the bums do not have cars to drive the book store to drop off the loot they found at 3am in your garbage can.


NY Times
January 18, 2008
Big City
Their House to Yours, via the Trash
By SUSAN DOMINUS
By 9:15 most mornings, Thomas Germain, a ruddy-faced man in a yellow slicker, is pushing his oversize black wheeled suitcase down 12th Street in the direction of the Strand Bookstore on Broadway. Sometimes, the suitcase is stuffed full of books; sometimes the books fill a box or two or three that he balances carefully on top of it, a mass of swaying literature he rolls all the way from Greenwich Village or SoHo or Stuyvesant Town.

By 9:30, he’s often sitting outside the Strand, waiting for the store to open, drinking a breakfast of Budweiser with his friend Brian Martin, who’s pushed and pulled his own collection of books to the same destination in a large, teetering grocery cart.

The men are regulars at the Strand, book-scavenging semipros who help the city’s best-known used-book store keep its shelves stocked. They have no overhead, no employees and no boss. They also have no home. What they have is experience, and a fitful sense of industry.

“Perseverance,” Mr. Germain, said one recent Monday. “Other people fail at this because they don’t persevere.”

For them, that means rising from their street-side slumber around 3 a.m. to start sifting through recycling bins outside people’s homes or in front of buildings. (For the record, paperbacks are recyclable; the city requires the covers to be removed from hardcovers before they can be recycled, a request that for booklovers is tantamount to asking 10-year-old girls to rip Barbie’s head off before discarding her in the trash.)

The two 50-ish men — Tommy Books and Leprechaun , they call themselves — are often the first people waiting on the Strand’s bookselling line, a queue also populated by N.Y.U. students, genteel booklovers moving to smaller apartments, frugal cleaner-outers, and a fair number of down-and-out fellow book scavengers, many of whom live on the street.

Hundreds of men and a smaller number of women eke out a living scavenging books in Manhattan, according to Mitchell Duneier, author of “Sidewalk,” a book about the subculture of sidewalk book scavengers and vendors. Some of them sell their books on the street; others, the less entrepreneurial, or the more impatient, go for the surefire cash at the Strand.

When the store opened that Monday morning, Tommy Books and Leprechaun each in turn emptied their boxes onto the counter, where Neil Winokur, a Strand employee, quickly sorted them into two piles. An incomplete encyclopedia got rejected, as did Donna Tartt’s “Secret History.” (Too many on the market.) An hour or two later, another scavenger scored a hit selling the store a supply of children’s books, but had no luck with Newt Gingrich’s “Winning the Future” (“No one buys him here,” said Mr. Winokur).

Around lunchtime, Neil Harrison, another regular who’s lived mostly on the street, showed up with a stash of leather-bound 19th-century books, their marbleized covers aswirl with greens and blues. He said that a building superintendent had allowed him to clear out a storage area used by a man who had died whose family did not want the books. Mr. Harrison didn’t know the authors — Thackeray, Gibbon — but he knew enough to know that the books had value.

Sure enough, the books went straight to the third floor, where book preservationists would clean them up and eventually offer them for sale. “Six hundred,” Mr. Winokur told him (he thought the store could sell the Thackeray volumes for between $1,000 and $1,500). When he heard the number, Mr. Harrison crossed himself, then whooped. He peeled off a $20 to give a clerk as a tip; he left and came back five minutes later to hand Mr. Winokur $20, paying back some money he’d borrowed from the store the week before.

Is there any other industry in which such high-quality goods regularly make their way to consumers via a trash bin? Stand in the bookselling line at the Strand and the store starts to feel less like a dusty bastion of erudition and more like a messy, mulchy place where old ideas struggle to find new life.

Even in better days than these for books, the economy of publishing was bloated, based on guesswork, mercurial taste and the talents of people whose keenest interests rarely included making money. Book recycling in Manhattan is just the opposite, a perfectly efficient system with no fat at all: So many discarded books go from someone’s garbage to a scavenger to a bookseller and, often enough, land gently in someone else’s home. Feel guilty, if you must, for never finishing Tony Judt’s “Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945;” but don’t feel guilty for chucking it. It will most likely live to haunt someone else’s bedside table. It will find a new home.

Tommy Books and Leprechaun would like a new home themselves, they said. Also, a van.

E-mail: susan.dominus@nytimes.com

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

"I am well aware that people consume more resources when they live a low density."

This idea is frequently repeated, and I'm sure it has some basis, but I wonder if it has really been studied carefully.

I figure that costs are a pretty good proxy for resources, and urban living always seems to cost more and require higher taxes. Urban areas have a lot more exterior lighting, and need more mechanical HVAC, plus elevators, etc. You haul a lot of goods in, and a lot of trash away. It seems to me that urban areas use a lot of power.

Less dense places use more resources of other kinds, like road-feeet per residence.

EIA publishes documents that show the per household use of energy hardly differs. Rural households drive more and yet their costs of transportation are lower (Lesser vehicles, lower insurance costs, and more efficient speed of travel).

I'm not so sure people use more resources when the live at low density. If they live at really low density, they may be net producers due to home based businesses and farming.

RH