The Surprising Ways Living In A City Helps The Environment

Living in cities often results in leaving a smaller carbon footprint, whether urban dwellers know it or not. Smaller spaces, fewer cars, and the accumulation of less stuff are major wins for the environment, whether you're in a city or farm.


May 26 2019, Updated 6:28 p.m. ET

To environmentalists, cities hardly appear to be bastions of green living. In fact, metropolises can seem like little more than concrete jungles where no grass grows and miniature living spaces are thoughtlessly stacked on top of each other without regard for the natural world.

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After all, in general, cities are dirty. They rely less on nature than money, and by their very design, they snub the natural system of things. Right?

Well, maybe not so much. It turns out city living may be just the antidote needed for environmental irresponsibility. By their nature, cities significantly reduce the carbon footprint left behind by the people who live in them, whether people are consciously trying to make that change or not. And that’s a win-win for the environment. Here’s why.

No one drives a car

People walk in cities (OK, maybe not all cities). Most neighborhoods have their own grocers, delis, series of shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, music venues, and public transit stations. And that means a whole lot of people who have no use for personal vehicles. Annual transportation expenses for most Americans comprise around 17 percent of their incomes. Not so in cities, where transit passes like Metro Cards and BART tickets only add up to around 9 percent.

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In fact, the population density environmentalists sometimes critique in urban centers is what makes cities so much more environmentally friendly. Urban dwellers enjoy reduced commuting distances, no car payments, and have 30 percent less of a carbon footprint than the United States average.

Your typical Manhattanite uses around 90 gallons of fuel a year—a number not seen in the general population since the mid-1920s.

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People live ‘small’

It’s nothing for an entire apartment in a city to be the size of a kitchen or living room in a suburban or rural home.

Condensed cities mean condensed living spaces. And only occupying necessary space means burning through fewer natural resources to heat, clean, cool and maintain a home.

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Keeping homes separate means every residence having its own patch of land, septic, washer/dryer, dishwasher, lawnmower, several air conditioners and televisions, furnace, hot water heater and swimming pool. Those amenities would seem unrealistic or extreme in cities, where having a shared gym, doorman, laundry service and rooftop deck are luxuries.

Urban residents own less

Ultimately, living small means owning less. And that means fewer miles traveled for commodities, fewer fossil fuels burned to make products, and less overall fuel and resources used for furnishing, travel, and stuff you’re not going to hold on to.

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If you spread 8 million New Yorkers out at a ratio equal to the population density of, say, Vermont, you would need six states out of New England; along with Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia, to house them all.

While living in the suburbs, or more rural areas, definitely offers unique opportunities to live green, city-living doesn't harm the environment in quite the way we tend to imagine. And what's more important is that each individual person has the potential to make changes in their own lives and communities to keep the planet healthy. Whether you're in the middle of downtown or on a distant farm, there are always ways you can live sustainably. 


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