The greenest city in America

Written by adam


I’m not sure what link trail led me to this five-year-old New Yorker piece on the greenest city in America, but it holds up quite well. According to New Yorker magazine, the greenest city in America is: New York.

> The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.

The author makes a strong case, although he also makes one big goof: the per capita carbon footprint of New Yorkers is about the same as that of Los Angelenos, and both cities are radically greener than most of the rest of America. Los Angelenos have their cars, but they also have their wonderful climate. New Yorkers are astoundingly energy efficient, but the need for summer air conditioning and winter heating takes a toll. One thing seems certain: if you crossed New York’s density with LA’s weather, you’d have the greenest city in the world, by far.

One of the foundational ideas of modern environmentalism is that environmentally damaging activities should carry a price. Polluters should have to bear the cost of environmental destruction, rather than pushing that cost onto society. Gas should be more expensive. Electricity — at least electricity that comes from coal and natural gas — should be more expensive. And so forth.

The New Yorker piece makes the counterintuitive claim that electricity prices in cities should be reduced, to lure more people to live in dense, energy-efficient settlements:

> People who live in cities use only about half as much electricity as people who don’t, and people who live in New York City generally use less than the urban average. A truly enlightened energy policy would reward city dwellers and encourage others to follow their good example.

I think this suggestion is probably wrong, but it does get at a more general and important idea: a tax code and infrastructure plan that took the environment into account would as a natural consequence make cities cheaper to live in and suburbs more expensive. They would have to, because cities are just so much better for the planet.

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  1. Natalie

    I actually like the idea of rewarding city dwellers for energy efficiency, but an exception to the rewards system should be made for rural residents who till their land. After all, we need food.

  2. Adam Stein

    Please, no. Food is massively, massively subsidized already, and the system is a god-awful mess for both consumers and the environment. The last thing we need is more farm subsidies.

  3. Natalie

    I guess I was thinking more along the lines of small family farmers, who often use the land more sustainably and don’t have access to the usual subsidies. Sorry if I was not clear.

  4. Tom Harrison

    I read that article when it came out, and it was one of the things that helped me start understanding how complicated our energy use is.
    I agree that the New Yorker author’s conclusion is simplistic — what makes NYC and LA and other cities so incredibly efficient isn’t magic: it is their density. City dwellers live close to … everything, and things like public transit and efficient buildings become feasible on a grand scale not possible in less dense environments.
    We need to provide incentives (or disincentives) for the trade-off between living the inherently inefficient and unsustainable life of suburban sprawl. All the things we desire are cheaper than they should be to be sustainable: big houses, big TVs, big yards, lots of stuff and big honkin’ cars to haul them all around, and perhaps as important, big commutes to the cities where our jobs still live.
    Sure having a lot of space is nice … but it’s a luxury that current cost models don’t properly account for. I know many people who made the financial trade-off between the extra land and big house they can afford 20 extra miles from our city (Boston) versus the relatively tiny house we live in, and tiny lot on which it is placed.
    And our house is still relatively inefficient: a single family house is a poor use of space, but our tiny house on a tiny lot is only 7 miles from the city, and costs probably 4x more than an equivalent house 30 miles (and 60 to 90 minutes) away from the cities where we all work.
    Something is missing in the pricing model here. And maybe that’s what the New Yorker article was trying to get at, even it they didn’t say it right 🙂



  6. Eric Snyder

    How does New York manage sewage… obviously a bigger problem for concentrated metropolitan areas.?

  7. michael

    Ian McHarg wrote a wonderful book a number of years ago entiled Design with Nature.
    The section about human congestion and its affects on health is quite interesting…

  8. Steve

    Right on!
    Jame Kunstler calls suburbia the greatest misallocation of resources in human history. Naturally, all we need to do is put a price on carbon emissions and people will quickly find urban living more affordable and attractive. Lester Brown’s book, ‘Plan B 3.0’, calculates the fully loaded societal cost of gasoline at around $13/gallon. Roughly what people in Europe pay now. Of course, you don’t see a whole lot of giant SUV’s over there.
    Our problem is that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner both psychologically and economically. A huge percentage of Americans live in suburbia and a huge piece of our economy has to do with building more suburban homes!
    Can you imagine the political backlash against decisive and correct public policy? As I sit here today it seems the best we can hope for is incrementalism for now. The Waxman-Markey bill is rather disappointing to say the least.

  9. Adam Stein

    I can’t speak specifically to sewage, although waste management does play a part in New York’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030. This is another area where density helps: the city is considering laying some special rail lines dedicated to hauling waste, which will displace a lot of the trip currently made by garbage trucks. I know they’re also planning to capture the methane from all landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

  10. Chris R

    Is it any surprise that the New Yorker ranked New York first? Other rankings, such as SustainLane and NRDC Smarter Cities, put NYC in the top 10, but not at the top (that spot usually goes to Portland, San Francisco, or Seattle).

  11. Anonymous

    Think about the foot print of NYC relative to resources, food, and water, same goes for LA, it is enormous. Density is a good thing, however, sucking resources from great distances has an environmental/carbon foot print. New yorkers drive less, but what about the tens-of-thousands of trucks crossing the Williamsburg and George Washington bridges every morning bringing chickens, fruits and vegetables, and other dry goods every morning and every night? I used to walk to work across the Williamsburg Bridge and witnessed first hand the quantities of stuff hauled into the city every morning. They might not use cars to get to work, but others are burning diesel, crawling in traffic on Manhattan’s bridges and in tunnels on their behalf.
    I read a thought experiment article once claiming that ‘in the future’ a truly sustainable city would need to be a fraction of the size of NYC.

  12. michael

    …NY gets it water supply from fairly far north…not far from where I live…about 50 miles or so.
    Call this a mis-allocation of a non-renewable resource at some level…many folks close to this reservoir system cannot take advantage of the water…we are funny animals in the best of times.

  13. darooda

    I appreciate the efficiency of cities, but discounts for urban living already exist in spades. Show me a self supporting mass transit system in the US. You can avoid using gas in NYC because the state subsidizes the subways, busses, etc. Why should farms and rural locales not have subsidies as well? Sure I use more gas, but I grow a lot of my own food, use a CSA for the rest. There are advantages to responsible suburban and rural living too. I’ve lived in both and can maintain a low footprint in both, just with different solutions.
    Many farms barely get by as it is, sure practices need improving, but we all need food. There is far more excessive spending and greed in urban areas than rural. Just look at forclosure rates.

  14. michael

    Many of the farmers in rural NY are in business because it is in their blood…they have that caloused nature developed from working the land and from working with the extremes mother nature can throw at us.
    Surviving a farmers life is not for everyone…and we take the grocery strore for granted I think.

  15. Tom Harrison

    Hi Darooda —
    Public transit has been seen as a public good in most places. I also don’t see many self-sustaining libraries, roads, or other such things. Even if a public transit system is measured on its own costs, there are several costs not calculated by our current accounting — CO2 saved, for one, reduction of congestion perhaps, and maybe others.
    I do agree with you about the distinction between rural living and suburban — the two main problems with suburban living are that most people commute (by car) to work, and people tend to live in unsustainable ways.

  16. Anonymous

    Energy consumption is only part of living green. If this article only focuses on this aspect, it is missing the mark. What about recycling efforts? How green are the buildings, what is the city’s water conservation policy, etc. I would like to see how N.Y. compares with San Fransisco on overall sustainable accomplishments city wide.

  17. Adam Stein

    I would suggest reading the article. It’s mostly about buildings and transportation, and it cuts through a lot of the fuzzy metrics often used to measure “greenness.” For example, recycling rates are way far down on the list of things that can move the needle on a city’s environmental impact. And green buildings are nice, but the important thing really is having buildings, period.
    Honestly, most lists of “green cities” totally suck.

  18. Pat

    Energy consumption is only part of living green. If this article only focuses on this aspect, it is missing the mark. What about recycling efforts? How green are the buildings, what is the city’s water conservation policy, etc. I would like to see how N.Y. compares with San Fransisco on overall sustainable accomplishments city wide.
    Thank you, Adam, for this lively discussion.

  19. michael

    …and, public transit works when busses are full…routes are still manned no matter how many folks decide to jump on for the ride…this is a concern and condition anywhere buses are used to move people. This is a tuff one.
    My personal rant is with school buses in rural areas; early morning roads are congested with school buses, but also, with big SUVs carrying one or two children because mom and dad don’t want the kids riding the bus. So we have half full – a skeptics guess – school buses in addition to X number of extra autos on the road going to the same place. This habit is simply mad!

  20. Dave in OH

    Looking at cities in isolation without considering where their food, water, and energy come from, and where their waste goes, is not useful. Without all those external inputs and outputs, every one of them is unsustainable.
    I do appreciate NYC’s quoted high rate of transit, bike and foot commuting. Those numbers rival or surpass even Amsterdam. Since I began commuting by bike, my carbon footprint has lowered substantially.
    Cities like Seattle, SF and NYC (or LA) are not as sustainable as you’d think because they are overpriced to the point that a large fraction of the population can’t afford to live close enough to work to commute by a sustainable fashion. The gridlock and smog are huge. So maybe they’re right: it comes down to having enough buildings to house people close in where all this becomes feasible.
    I like my medium sized midwestern city, close enough to sustainable farms that I can support.

  21. Me-Shell

    I recently moved from New York City to Northampton, MA. Northampton is a progressive city. We are working on an extensive bike path system and are hoping for high-speed rail to come our way within the next 3 years. However, I am surprised at the number of folks who drive their (Hybrid) cars to the store when they could easily walk. We need to change our way of thinking.
    New York City is not for everybody. I feel guilty at times that I left such a “green” city. But there I was working in an industry that perpetuated consumption and now I am teaching. The focus should be on creating communities that have their green space but also are close enough that people can walk to work and to the store. We need to refocus.

  22. Tim

    2 cities (NYC and SF) congratulating themselves on their density are contained on at least 3 of 4 sides; Honestly, congratulations are only due for not sprawling (much) into the water. By happy circumstance, they show the green benefit of high density living.
    In contrast, as to how to contain the human tendency to claim as much land (stuff) as possible, Portland’s leadership are the ones to ask.

  23. Jonathan Chen

    Haha nice to see you get passionate about an issue that grates on me terribly as well. 🙂