Is living in NYC environmentally superior to the suburbs?
April 24, 2006 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Is living in New York City more environmentally sensitive than living in the suburbs?

I've always been curious about the relative energy- and waste-efficiency of living in a major city like New York as opposed to the suburbs I grew up in. Comparing my hometown on the coast of Florida as a "suburb" (urban sprawl, single-family homes, travel exclusively by car, extreme climate control, etc.), and my current residency in Brooklyn (travel exclusively by mass transit, vastly more complicated energy/waste/resource infrastructure, etc.), which is having a more detrimental effect on the planet's health? Can a comparison be made? I'm sure a similar question has been asked before, but it was difficult to coax out of a search with keywords... my instinct is that the suburbs are more detrimental, but I might be very naive about what it takes to keep a city like New York running.
posted by logovisual to Science & Nature (18 answers total)
You can estimate the ecological footprint for both places here.

The short answer is that, yes, city dwellers on average consume fewer resources than people living in suburbs or rural areas.
posted by driveler at 11:55 AM on April 24, 2006

GREEN MANHATTAN: Why New York is the greenest city in the U.S. (from The New Yorker)
posted by unmake at 11:57 AM on April 24, 2006

See also this article from the New Yorker a few years ago: Green Manhattan - Why New York City is the Greenest City in the U.S.
posted by driveler at 11:58 AM on April 24, 2006

[W]hile cities have unattractive features, the density of human life enables energy efficiency, mass transit, recycling, and other benefits which are difficult or impossible in rural areas. Thus, the impact of any given individual urban dweller on the environment may be less than that of a suburban or rural individual, while quality of life may by some measures be higher.
posted by donpedro at 12:00 PM on April 24, 2006

City living has a much smaller environmental footprint. Smaller living areas, close proximity, mass transit, efficiencies of scale....

A city's sewer/electrical/gas system may look complicated, but it's short - ten feet of wiring/sewer/water pipes extends the system to the next 500 human beings. In the suburbs, 50 feet of wiring/sewer/water pipes extends the system to the next 4 humans. In the country, 5000 feet of wiring/sewer/water pipes extends the system to the next 4 humans.
posted by jellicle at 12:02 PM on April 24, 2006

The footprint calculator doesn't work very well for city dwellers, IMHO. For example, I don't drive 0 km a week, but I do probably drive 5-10 km. However, I have to check off the 15-50 km box, since the next answer is 0 km.
posted by acoutu at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2006

Yup, suburban living is about the most inefficient way of life. Costs far more to service a suburban dwelling than it does an urban one. Aside from the servicing and transportation costs, also consider that the suburb was probably built as green field development (nothing on it before) and taken out of land which would otherwise be used for agriculture.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:10 PM on April 24, 2006

New York doesn't recycle nearly as much as other big cities do, however. The general sentiment seems to me to be "that the garbage gets picked up at all is a miracle, don't get greedy."

There aren't recycling bins on street corners, only garbage cans, and while the author is excited about the possibility of "recycling chutes," for most New Yorkers, who live in buildings 50+ years old, this isn't a reality. If I want to throw something out, I walk down the hall and put it in the trash chute. If I want to recycle something, I have to take the elevator down to the basement, walk to the garbage room, and sort it out there. Total PITA, and as such I'm one of the few people in my building who does it. And I live in a big building with a full-time maintenance staff who consolidates the whole building's recyclables in seperate bins, bags it all up, gets it out on the right day, etc, for me; many New Yorkers don't even have that option. Granted, recycling isn't the be-all end-all of green-ness, but NYC has a LONG way to go to catch up with the burbs in that department, I think.
posted by ChasFile at 12:21 PM on April 24, 2006

Recycling is good in theory, but in practice, it's of questionable benefit.
posted by Miko at 12:41 PM on April 24, 2006

Derail: Miko, according to the link, curbside recycling is cheaper than trash collection and disposal.
posted by russilwvong at 1:06 PM on April 24, 2006

From what I've seen in NYC and Florida suburbs, recycling is the only thing the Panhandle has over the Apple in terms of environmental sound-ness. In Florida, the recyling is efficient. I don't know if it is mandated by law or just too efficent not-to-do, but it works. They also drive cars and, much like the suburbs around Chicago, they like BIG cars. I'm under the impression that are SUVs raping the Earth Mother a great deal more than landfills, but I'm willing to accept that I've been fed some bullshit on that note.
posted by elr at 1:44 PM on April 24, 2006

Yeah, russilwvong, but the question is about benefit to the environment, not to the municipal budget. It upsets me that private salvage companies make money from cities under the guise of doing something environmentally responsible, when in fact it's just a better monetary deal, and sometimes recycling (of paper, for instance) can use even more resources than producing new material. And certainly recycling uses many more resources than re-use and reduction of packaging would.
posted by Miko at 2:07 PM on April 24, 2006

If anyone hasn't already read the New Yorker article, the chief point is that a city like New York - Manhattan specifically, is much more energy efficient than a comparable populace living in a suburban or rural environment, not because NYC has an outstanding recycling program, or because many people bicycle to work, but because 1000 people living in a high-rise and primarily using shared transportation use energy more efficiently than 1000 people living in stand-alone houses, driving individual vehicles.

That's the gist as I remember, anyway, having read the article 18 months ago..
posted by unmake at 2:46 PM on April 24, 2006

They also drive cars

Well, if you've been to the panhandle surely you know there really isn't much choice (unless there's a subway you can point me to that I'm missing).
posted by justgary at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2006

justgary, I think that's the point. No one is ripping on panhandle residents personally.
posted by salvia at 12:24 AM on April 25, 2006

That article is great. Clearly, for now, cities are more environmentally sound. But here's my "devil's advocate" question. Let's say oil runs out or whatever. Is NYC only "more efficient," but ultimately unlivable without fossil fuels in a way that dense small towns would not be? How would you import enough food... sailboats? And these big buildings, do they become uninhabitable without HVAC systems? In my post-fossil fuel world, can you even build over four stories (because you need metal then, right)? Is this all too neo-primitive and hypothetical?

I have this weird idea that at some point, we're going to have to get down to earth somehow, and that it'd be harder in big cities. In my hypothetical town, picture any old-time Main Street, you can bike anywhere, but you have a tiny yard where you can grow some food. If this is a derail, I apologize, but it seems like the main question has been answered.
posted by salvia at 12:31 AM on April 25, 2006

Donpedro and Jellicle said it best... but additionally, it should be pointed out that current recycling systems barely put a dent in the ecological footprint of a city.

Two common recyclables -- glass and aluminum are fairly benign to landfill, barring any toxic coatings. Pretty much all aluminum eventually downcycles to pop cans -- recycled aluminum doesn't get used in airplanes or other structural applications.

Paper recycling is a bit clumsy still -- do you want to kill fish or trees -- what you don't harvest out of the forest goes to toxic industrial runoff during the recycling process. Moreso, paper quickly downcycles, eventually ending up in landfill releasing more toxins in the form of bleach, inks, and adhesives.

One of the biggest impacts one can make -- which is made easier by living in a metropolis -- is to not buy new some of the larger things that go with suburban living. Like a new house, lawnmower, garden furniture, or new car. The natural resources and energy expended to build and dispose of new stuff is staggering -- it doesn't matter that you bought a hybrid Prius, the very fact that another car was manufactured makes its fuel efficency damn near inconseqential. In a city, you're using the existing infrastructure of buildings, plumbing, and transportation.

So goes my justification for living in a box in the sky, furnishing with vintage Eames' and Dieter Rams, and driving a 1978 Lotus Eclat.
posted by Extopalopaketle at 1:11 AM on April 25, 2006

Paper recycling is a bit clumsy still -- do you want to kill fish or trees?

Deforestation also kills fish, so the real choice is -- do you want to kill fish and trees, or just fish? So we should recycle after all. After we reduce and reuse.
posted by salvia at 2:08 AM on April 25, 2006

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