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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George, I love ya.. (platonically) but suggest you stop telling people how to live their lives. You’re becoming a admonishing finger waver. I live in a rural setting – but have access to Providence and Worcester in a half hour. Many homes here now sport solar panels (almost unknown 15 years ago), plus new construction is often geo-thermal based and using recycled bamboo and other sustainable materials for several of the main elements in the house. They have their own wells and use them.
Many locals driving hybrids. My driving to and from work is – efficient. 20 minutes, all back roads, no traffic, 12 miles. Try crossing Manhattan from east side to west – in under an hour (yes, except on a bike – watch out constantly). The high cost, delays in travel time, cabbies, pollution, NOISE, attitude, crowding – all drive me OUT of cities. I can buy a good sub in Blackstone, MA for 4 bucks. Try that in Cleveland. See attached. DK
That would be ‘wagger’ not wager. My mistake.
My family moved from suburban Orange County, California to suburban Austin, Texas 3 years ago. Where we live, new housing developments sit across from miles of farms. It reminds me of the Orange County I grew up, where the farms gradually disappeared as developers bought up the land. In 20 years, this part of Texas is on track to have a similar fate. Because of car-centric zoning laws and city planning, it’s almost impossible to walk anywhere outside your neighborhood. So all walking is only leisure–you can’t walk to a store to pick up something. Most schools are situated where the majority of students have to take a bus or be driven, adding to congestion. We live in a college town, so there is a walkable old-town, built pre-car, primarily full of restaurants and bars, though there is some retail. We tend to frequent that area a lot, as almost all of those business are local-owned and have character.
If you are interested in learning more, the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes has some great videos on what makes a city great.
You are absolutely correct. As someone who lived 10 years off-the-grid (although not by choice) city living is the future that will save us all. Granted, not an urban hellscape future, but with intelligent planning. My father continues to live in Vermont and remains upset by the regressive views of the local township. There’s no pressure for them to change and adapt, unlike a compact and dense social structure that produces adaptive and socially-supportive communities of people, who overwhelmingly tend towards socially and politically progressive attitudes (Yes, Bernie/Vermont but: Bernie is from Brooklyn).
Farming is a necessity, at least in a general way, but nature stops being natural the minute people are introduced. It’s really unfortunate that people continue to insist otherwise. And indoor plumbing is amazing.
This really spoke to (and inspired!) me: “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.” As someone who moved 10 years ago from a 1,700 sq. ft townhouse in the “burbs” to a 600 sq. ft apt in Seattle (and is about to do it again), this feeling… Knowing you could move anywhere in 2 hours thanks to a lack of “stuff” is life changing and addictive. Thank you for your perspective, George.