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.
In a city like New York, a considerable percentage of residents get groceries in person, walking to the store and carrying their groceries home. For people who are unable to physically go to the store or for those who would just rather not, we’ve got delivery. While grocery and package delivery in the city happens with a van or a truck (though many goods are delivered via cargo bicycles these days), those vans and trucks are carrying groceries and other goods to multiple homes instead of just one, yielding a much more efficient use of fuel and time with one vehicle.
Then there are the obvious health benefits to living in a city without a car. It’s no breaking news story that less time spent in a car, getting where we need to go on foot or by bicycle, is better for us personally, better for the environment and better overall.
Another hidden perk of city living I’ve come to appreciate is how it teaches one to edit. Without an attic, a basement, spare bedrooms or a garage full of bullshit that we ultimately don’t need, city living forces one to acquire less stuff and live more efficiently. For decades, I lived in apartments so small that it forced me to surrender to a hotel room lifestyle, which was oddly liberating. Everything I owned was inside my 372 square foot atelier. I did not rent a storage space. Lean, mean and less to clean.
Perhaps the biggest unexpected truth about city living and its environmental efficacy that surprised me most was a statistic I read in Janette Sadik-Khan’s wonderful 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 if you think about it. 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, Miami… even Cleveland, where I lived without a car for three years before moving back to New York in 2020.
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, make some sacrifices and live more thoughtfully and consciously. 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 PUR pitcher 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 in 2002, quitting meat in 2010, quitting smoking in 2022 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.
When it comes to slowing climate change, it’s unreasonable to expect government and corporations to do all the work. We can all do something as individuals, however small it seems.
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