Book Review: The Very Hungry City by Austin Troy

Austin Troy’s The Very Hungry City is an important work that seeks to holistically assess the potential for reducing “urban energy metabolism”—the energy required to meet the needs of people living in urban environments. It systematically explores the determinants of urban energy metabolism, drawing from examples in the US, Western Europe, South America, and East Asia. Troy’s central argument is that a city’s energy metabolism is a determinant of its economic competitiveness that will only become more important as energy prices rise. The case for higher energy prices is well argued in a series of interludes that detail trends in energy supply and demand and discuss the potential for various fuels, technologies, and other measures to alleviate capacity and supply constraints.

Troy focuses on some of the key drivers of energy consumption in cities, including buildings and transportation, thoughtfully detailing considerations in each. He further develops strong connections between urban form and transportation energy consumption while tracing the history of development of cities like Los Angeles.

Troy recognizes that urban energy metabolism is not just a municipal problem, but something that warrants reevaluation of policy at all levels of government. His policy recommendations include urban reinvestment, retargeting transportation spending, and adjusting federal housing finance and credit policies (e.g. the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration, and Federal National Mortgage Association)—including resolving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s refusal to purchase mortgages with a Property Assessed Clean Energy lien. But one of his most fundamental recommendations is strengthening regional governance. Troy argues that the regional nature of employment and trip-making is at odds with local control of land use and that expanding the authority of existing regional governance structures is necessary to improve energy metabolism outcomes at the regional level.

While The Very Hungry City is a well-researched and generally thorough book, the lack of discussion of consumption as a driver of urban energy metabolism is a notable omission. Material goods represent significant embodied energy because they require resource extraction and refining, product manufacturing, and transport. In turn, the landfilling of materials suitable for biochemical or thermochemical conversion represents a significant foregone opportunity for generating energy. Furthermore, this linear resource extraction chain has significant implications for exhaustion of non-renewable resources and for energy requirements for resource extraction. As easy supplies are exhausted, remaining sources require more energy to harvest and may have more significant environmental implications.

Our Los Angeles Energy Baselines “Urban Metabolism 2.0” project recognizes the importance of material consumption to urban metabolism. In addition to lifecycle assessments of energy consumption occurring within buildings, transportation and infrastructure, we use economic input-output data to model the lifecycle energy consumption corresponding to economic activity occurring within Los Angeles county. This work will shed light on the relative importance of consumption given current resource utilization and waste management practices and will enable the development of effective policy for reducing the county’s urban energy metabolism.

 

Book review written by Sinnott Murphy.