I know it sounds counterintuitive. It sounded counterintuitive to me when I first read it last year. But living in the city is better for the environment.
How can this be? Suburbs and rural areas are – literally – greener. There is ostensibly less pollution, there are fewer people and it just seems less dirty outside the city. But there are less than obvious catches.
To power and plumb a single family home, which provides shelter, heat, hot water and electricity to an average of only 2.6 Americans per household, it takes a considerable amount of resources, infrastructure and energy. A multi-family home, like an apartment building, requires a more significant amount of resources, infrastructure and energy, but those resources are serving exponentially more people within one structure. And then there’s all that water and fuel it takes to maintain a lawn and wash the car.
Another environmental benefit to city living is the need for a car, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Outside the city, we need to get into a car to access just about everything. Whether we’re going out to eat, going to a movie, meeting friends or shopping for groceries, we need to get into a car, drive somewhere and park. In the city, where (ideally) everything we need is within walking distance or a short ride on public transit, everything we’re accessing and doing is accomplished without the use of a car. It makes a difference.
Then there are the obvious health benefits. It’s no breaking news flash that less time spent in a car, getting where we need to go on foot or by bicycle, is better for us overall.
Another hidden perk of city living I’ve come to appreciate is how it teaches one to edit. Without an attic, a basement or a garage full of stuff that we don’t need, city living forces one to acquire less stuff and live more efficiently. One of my favorite apartments, years ago, was so small that it forced me to surrender to a hotel room lifestyle, which was oddly liberating.
Perhaps the biggest unexpected truth about city living and its environmental efficacy that surprised me most was a statistic I read last year in Janette Sadik-Khan’s 2016 book Streetfight. In the book, she notes:
“New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services.”
My head sort-of exploded when I read that. It never occurred to me, but it it makes total sense. And Sadik-Khan is quick to point out that this efficient city living applies to any big city, not just New York. Chicago, Boston, L.A., London, Stockholm… even Cleveland.
It’s not about dumping the house in the suburbs and moving into an apartment in the city (But wouldn’t that be cool, though?). I think it’s more about willingness to change and make some sacrifices. Instead of driving all the time, try walking more, riding a bicycle or taking a bus once in a while. Instead of buying bottled water, get a Soma, a Brita or a filter for the faucet. Instead of plastic bags at the grocery store, get some canvas totes and bring them with you when you shop. When all the kids have grown up and moved out, do you need to heat/cool/maintain all those bedrooms? Things like that.
A shift in perspective and in one’s design for living involves change. Change is hard. I get it. I’ve done a fair share of it over the years, quitting drinking 17 years ago, quitting meat almost 10 years ago and getting back into a consistent fitness regimen over this past year. None of these things were easy. But in the interest of more effective living, they were worth it. Nothing truly worthwhile is easy, and real progress doesn’t come without change and sacrifice. When it comes to a healthier environment for myself and for everyone else, I take pride in putting forth the effort.
If we do little things, one bit at a time, we can make a difference.
Photo by Dmitry Gudkov.