The new slow city: one man's mission to live the simple life in downtown Manhattan

Can you live a life of rural simplicity even in New York? Image: Getty.

In 2007, I lived for a season in an off-grid permaculture cabin in North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through a lush forest, and I befriended the eclectic neighbors – organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers. I discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life, and wrote about in my memoir Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.

Alas, the book triggered angry questions. “It’s easy,” one Twelve by Twelve reader wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?” This question was the genesis of my new book: New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.

I received, in fact, a hundred variations of this question after lectures and on radio interviews, and always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values... but in Queens, New York, the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.

But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own. Overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature – “civilization,” in short – brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.


Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City. I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 – about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply – and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.

In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” – roughly two 12 x 12s – in downtown Manhattan.

Melissa and I approached our thimble of an apartment through the ideas of philosopher Thomas Merton, who called his stark monk’s chambers “the four walls of my new freedom”. We stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seems to expand with each tweak.

We began to feel our well-being rise in proportion to what’s been shed. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomes the cutting board; jackets laze on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggle in their micro-shoe-apartment beside the door.

Beyond this minimalist freedom, I discovered that being “Slow” is not at all Luddite. Slow means cultivating positive qualities – receptive, intuitive, reflective – instead of the fast qualities so common today: busy, agitated, acquisitive.

I began living and working smarter instead of faster. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, I 80/20ed my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams – consulting, writing, speaking – that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.


Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into just two.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two- days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, recently called for a 3-day work week, and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Melissa and I discovered other Slow City tools in our year-long experiment.

  • Urban sanctuaries: We began spending more and more time in natural and reflective places right in Manhattan, like Central Park’s Ramble and the tip of Pier 45.
  • “Living at the third story”: I discovered I only need half my attention on the street level. As the rest of my focus rises up, I notice nut-brown oak branches and green leaves fluttering with white butterflies. An off-turquoise sky. Stretchy clouds. Ciao stress.
  • Technology fastin: We “fasted” from our gadgets for stints, diabling our phones and setting email to vacation mode. This helped quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other.
  • Silent meals. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d sometimes eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner.

Though not everyone can live in this way, all of us can ask: What’s my twelve by twelve? We can find the elusive contours of enough, and live there.

Enough is the sweet spot between too little and too much. It starts with each of us creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? And how can we incubate a New Slow City that’s saner now and fit for the future?

William Powers is author of New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, which is published this week.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.