NEW YORK – To most people, big, densely-populated cities look like ecological nightmares, wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. But, compared to other inhabited places, cities are models of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, the greenest community in the United States is New York City, the only American city that approaches environmental standards set elsewhere in the world.
The average New Yorker generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually; that is more than the average Swede, who generates 5.6 metric tons, but it is less than 30% of the US average of 24.5 metric tons. Residents of Manhattan, the most densely populated of the city’s five boroughs, generate even less.
The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan’s density is approximately 67,000 people per square mile, or more than 800 times that of the US as a whole and roughly 30 times that of Los Angeles. Moving people closer together reduces the distances between their daily destinations and limits their opportunities for reckless consumption, as well as forcing the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings.
New Yorkers, individually, use less water, burn less fossil fuel, and produce less solid waste. Their households also use much less electricity: 4,696 kilowatt hours per year, compared with 16,116 kilowatt hours in Dallas, Texas. Most important, New York’s highly concentrated population and comprehensive public transit system enable the majority of residents to live without owning automobiles, an unthinkable deprivation almost anywhere else in the US. Some 82% of employed Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, bicycle, or on foot. That’s 10 times the rate for Americans in general, eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County, and 16 times the rate for residents of metropolitan Atlanta.
At an environmental presentation in 2008, I sat next to an investment banker who was initially skeptical when I explained that New Yorkers have a significantly lower environmental impact than other Americans. “But that’s just because they’re all crammed together,” he said.
Well, yes. He then disparaged New Yorkers’ energy efficiency as “unconscious,” as though intention were more important than results. In fact, unconscious efficiencies are the most desirable ones, because they require neither enforcement nor a personal commitment to cutting back.
I spoke with one energy expert, who, when I asked him to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the US, said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.” In European cities, as in Manhattan, the most important efficiencies are built-in. And for the same reasons.
China and many other non-Western countries are rapidly urbanizing. That is, their populations are undergoing a general migration from rural areas to cities. This trend, which has been under way worldwide for decades, is often decried by American environmentalists, who generally prefer people to move in the opposite direction, toward “the land.”
But urbanization is usually a good thing, both for those moving to cities and for civilization in general. Urban families live more compactly, do less damage to fragile ecosystems, burn less fuel, enjoy stronger social ties to larger numbers of people, and, most significantly, produce fewer children, since large families have less economic utility in densely settled areas than they do in marginal agricultural areas.
The world’s population is expected to reach nine billion by 2042. That’s an increase of seven times the current population of the US, or of the combined current population of India and China. If we are to sustain a world of that size, growth must occur almost entirely in cities.
Unfortunately, many global trends are pushing in the opposite direction. Dependence on automobiles is growing in parts of the world that formerly got by without them. China’s pool of licensed drivers is growing exponentially, and India is a decade into one of the largest road-building projects in history, a 3,600-mile superhighway known as the Golden Quadrilateral, which links the country’s four largest cities, plus an extensive network of feeder roads.
All those new highways, in combination with India’s brand-new “People’s Car,” the $2,500 Tata Nano, represent an environmental, economic, and cultural disaster in the making. If America’s long history of energy-and-emissions gluttony proves anything, it’s that an automobile-dependent society is vastly easier to create than to un-create. Moving from walking, bicycling, and public transit to driving is relatively simple, because it requires only wealth, a desire for independence and status, and an inability or unwillingness to look very far into the future.
Moving from driving back to transit, bicycling, and walking is far harder, because the cars themselves are only part of the problem. Much more critical is the inherent inefficiency of the way of life that cars both enable and make necessary, and of the sprawling web of wasteful infrastructure that high levels of individual mechanized mobility lead affluent societies to create.
Sooner or later, whatever else happens, the world will run out of inexpensive oil. Countries with expanding economies would be better off using their new wealth to create ways of life that can be sustained beyond that inescapable point, rather than recklessly investing in a future that has no future. Not jumping off a cliff is easier than turning around in mid-fall.