26 Oct 2009: Opinion

Greenest Place in the U.S.?
It’s Not Where You Think

Green rankings in the U.S. don’t tell the full story about the places where the human footprint is lightest. If you really want the best environmental model, you need to look at the nation’s biggest — and greenest — metropolis: New York City.

by david owen

In 2007, Forbes picked Vermont as the greenest state, a choice consistent with conventional thinking about low-impact living. Vermont has an abundance of trees, farms, backyard compost heaps, and environmentally aware citizens, and it has no crowded expressways or big, dirty cities. (The population of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, is just under 40,000.) Vermont also ranks high in almost all the categories on which Forbes based its analysis, such as the proportion of buildings certified by the U. S. Green Building Council’s increasingly popular eco-rating system, which is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the implementation of public policies that encourage energy efficiency.

But Forbes’s ranking was unfortunate, because Vermont, in many important ways, sets a poor environmental example. Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average.

Is there a better U.S. environmental role model than Vermont? There are many — and the best of them, I believe, is New York City.

This choice may seem ludicrous to most Americans, including most New Yorkers, because for decades we have been taught to think of crowded cities as one of the principal sources of our worst environmental problems. In the most significant ways, though, New York is a paragon of ecological
The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is the very thing that makes it appear to be an ecological nightmare: its extreme compactness.
responsibility. The average city resident consumes only about a quarter as much gasoline as the average Vermonter — and the average Manhattan resident consumes even less, just 90 gallons a year, a rate that the rest of the country hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s. New Yorkers also consume far less electricity — about 4,700 kilowatt hours per household per year, compared with roughly 7,100 kilowatt hours in Vermont and more than 11,000 kilowatt hours in the United States as a whole. New York City is more populous than all but 11 states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.

The key to New York City’s relative environmental benignity is the very thing that, to most Americans, makes it appear to be an ecological nightmare: its extreme compactness. Moving people and their daily destinations close together reduces their need for automobiles, makes efficient public transit possible, and restores walking as a viable form of transportation. (Dense urban cores are among the few places left in America where people still routinely go around on foot; in the suburbs, you seldom see anyone walking who is actually traveling to a destination rather than merely moving between a building and a vehicle or trying to lose weight.)

Metropolitan New York accounts for almost a third of all the public-transit passenger miles traveled in the United States, and it has, by far, the
New York Green Metropolis
Mario Tama/Getty Images
In New York City, recent improvements to biking infrastructure led to a 35 percent increase in bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2008.
nation’s lowest rate of automobile ownership. (Fifty-four percent of New York City households — and 77 percent of Manhattan households — own no car at all. In Vermont and the rest of the country, the percentage of no-automobile households is close to zero.) Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, by 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.

Population density also lowers energy and water use in all categories, constrains family size, limits the consumption of all kinds of goods, reduces ownership of wasteful appliances, decreases the generation of solid waste, and forces most residents to live in some of the world’s most inherently energy-efficient residential structures: apartment buildings. As a result, New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. Manhattanites generate even less.

Americans tend to think of dense cities as despoilers of the natural landscape, but they actually help to preserve it. If you spread all 8.2 million New York City residents across the countryside at the population density of Vermont, you would need a space equal to the land area of the six New England states plus New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia — and
Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise them than by people who love them, or think they do.
then, of course, you’d have to find places to put all the people you were displacing. In a paradoxical way, environmental groups have been a major contributor to residential sprawl, for organizations like the Sierra Club, whose anti-city ethos has been indivisible from its mission since the time of John Muir, have fueled the yearning for fresh air and elbow room which drives not only the preservation of wilderness areas but also the construction of disconnected subdivisions and daily hundred-mile commutes. Preaching the sanctity of open spaces helps to propel development into those very spaces, and the process is self-reinforcing because, as one environmentalist said to me, “Sprawl is created by people escaping sprawl.”

Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them, or think they do — by people who move to be near them, and then, when others follow, move again. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond, a mile from his nearest neighbor, set the American pattern for creeping residential development, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move at least a mile farther along.

At an environmental presentation last year, 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. Just so. He then disparaged New Yorkers’ energy efficiency as “unconscious,” as though intention were more important than results. But unconscious efficiencies are the most desirable ones, because they require neither enforcement nor a personal commitment to cutting back. New Yorkers’ energy consumption has always been low, no matter what was happening with the price of fossil fuels; their carbon footprint isn’t small because they go around snapping off lights.

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 United States, said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more

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likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.” In European cities, as in New York, in other words, the most important efficiencies are built-in. And for the same reasons.

New York City looks so different from so much of the rest of the country that its environmental examples aren’t easy to apply — and even New Yorkers tend not to appreciate their power. (No one is more surprised than a Manhattanite to be told that Manhattanites are the nation’s lowest per-capita energy consumers.) But dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills, including climate change. Anti-urban naturalists like Thoreau and Muir make poor guides for anyone struggling with the increasingly urgent problem of how to support billions of mobile, acquisitive, hungry human beings without triggering disasters that can’t be contained.

The world’s population is projected to increase to 9 billion during the next 30 years — an increase of seven times the current population of the United States, or roughly equal to the current population of India and China combined. We won’t be able to accommodate that change by making the world look more like Vermont.

POSTED ON 26 Oct 2009 IN Climate Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Sustainability Urbanization North America North America 


Compact urban living is definitely more environmentally-friendly, and I think future development will have to focus on making communities more dense. But we'll also need to adopt better technologies that work with existing sprawl -- better transportation in particular.

Posted by Kirsten@Nexyoo on 26 Oct 2009

This essay is partially correct, but makes a fundamental error regarding ecological footprint.

Yes, urban density can provide sustainability value if citizens walk, cycle, use public transit, develop co-housing, and other cooperative relationships that lower biophysical demands per capita.

However, the fine citizens of NYC remain among the most prolific consumers on the planet, and as a result require over 23-acres of global productive capacity per person (the global average is about 5-acres per person).

Thus, New Yorkers (the five boroughs) require a global productive area of about 200-million-acres to supply their annual consumption of energy and materials. This demand represents 650-times the urban area, equal to the entire US eastern seaboard from Maine to South Carolina, just to feed the consumption of New York City. Of course, this "footprint" is scattered across the globe, making the impact less visible to New Yorkers.

Cities are only ecologically "green" if the citizens utilize urban density to consume less resources. Unfortunately, NY City does not yet qualify as a low-consumption city. Most rural communities remain far less consumptive per capita, and therefore more sustainable than New York City.

Rex Weyler
Vancouver, Canada

Posted by Rex Weyler on 26 Oct 2009

"Henry David Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond, a mile from his nearest neighbor, set the American pattern for creeping residential development, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move at least a mile farther along."

Not really. The tiny house was only lived in for two years, then abandoned, and because of its simple materials quickly decayed back to the soil.

Nor was Thoreau "anti-urban." He spent two years on Walden as an experiment in Transcendentalism and simple living, then returned to live in Concord.

Posted by Derek Gideon on 26 Oct 2009

Electricity and transportation are only a piece of what makes a city environmentally sound. Waste management is a huge piece of that too- and NYC gets an "F" in this category - it transports its waste to other states' landfills and incinerators, spends an enormous amount of money doing so and has only a 16 percent diversion rate with one of the worst recycling programs in the country. That doesn't sound so green to me.

Posted by Jennifer on 27 Oct 2009

NYC may be a wee bit "greener" than Dubai, in that the city accommodates low-income people in slightly better conditions than slave quarters. But it's real Ecological Footprint, in large part due to it's tiresome self-importance and propensity for grandiose edifices to corporatism, imperialism, global trade and ponzi economics, is truly immense and devastating.

And it's harbours used to grow the best oysters in the world, and were a large part of the local diet, but I dare any fool to eat one now.

Posted by David on 27 Oct 2009

Why the assumption that per capita gasoline consumption is the true measure of how "green" a population is? This measure seems inappropriately focused on the actions of the individual, when industry and commercial interests are far and away the greatest consumers of our power, water and natural resources, not to mention the greatest despoilers of our land, waters and air.

About 80 percent of the U.S. water consumption goes to thermoelectric power production and irrigation. http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2004/circ1268/

Have you read Chris Hedges interview with Derrick Jensen? "Individual consumption of energy accounts for about a quarter of all energy consumption; the other 75 percent is consumed by corporations. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States."


This is not a war that will be won by using mass transit and living near other people. It will require the entire destruction and rebuilding of our corporate society.

Posted by Brian on 28 Oct 2009

"The world’s population is projected to increase to 9 billion during the next 30 years."

Why is this just taken as an unstoppable event -- or even, a right we have as humans? (To take over the world.) What about trying to stop this population explosion/sprawl?

We all need to read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Please give it a chance, when you can, David!

Posted by Felix on 28 Oct 2009

I think what triggers my irritation with this article is not the excellent points made in some of the other comments, but that there's an implicit - and, I would argue - incorrect connection between "green" as using less gasoline and having a low carbon footprint, and "green" as living in and as part of the natural world.

Clearly, the two are utterly different, but they're often conflated. If your goal is efficient, low-impact living, you probably can't go wrong with Matrix-like brains in vats. And while I would never suggest that New York is anywhere near that point, for those of us who grew up in the country, it can be intensely stressful to spend significant amounts of time in a completely artificial environment that suffers from significant air, water, noise, and light pollution.

For many New Yorkers, the natural world is a tourist destination, and, at least for those of us who live outside cities now, that doesn't seem like something to encourage on a larger scale.

Posted by Adam C. Engst on 28 Oct 2009

The article is flawed for reasons that most comments have cited. There's one fallacy that I'd like to touch on in particular. The article implies, very wrongly, that large development of oversized houses that all look alike (and usually served by shiny strips with Burger Kings and Taco Bells nearby) on former agricultural land has something to do with rural living. These developments make money for developers who buy the land at agricultural prices, and provide relatively affordable houses, on a massive scale, for people who drive to work in distant cities where housing is scarce and expensive.

Traditional rural living is human scaled. Houses are modest and/or harmonize with agriculture, which the "monoculture" new developments do not. Large scale developments are anti-rural, and completely obliterate the agricultural and rural landscapes they displace through insane disregard for rural character, values and way of life.

It is true that New York exemplifies an environment that works against sprawl. But it can't be a case of urban density surrounded only by pristine nature. The other shoe is that there have to be thriving rural communities, neither obliterated by sprawl nor bereft of productive work, like farming, to complement and support dense cities. Dense cities without productive rural communities surrounding them (where people live in harmony with the land and produce a nearby source of food to cities) cannot be considered green.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 29 Oct 2009

Great article! Having lived in Europe AND in India, I see exactly what you are talking about. Europe, India, and all these other old countries were built a long time ago -- and they were built conservatively.

USA, on the other hand, has been built AROUND automobiles, trucks, transportation, etc. The same can be said of China.

Posted by Samir on 29 Oct 2009

We could build more cities, or we could just start telecommuting more. I don't live in a large city like NYC, but I have spent the last year and a half telecommuting. My household has one car, and most days of the week, I don't use any form of transportation other than my legs.

If gasoline consumption is your biggest concern, the most logical solution isn't that we should all live in cities, but rather those of us who have knowledge jobs should be commuting a lot less. Think of how much gas/electricity (for those who ride public transportation) if we just allowed knowledge workers to work from home one day a week? How about two or three? It takes time, money and natural resources to continuously build out our infrastructure -- roads, public transport, etc.

You know what doesn't take all of that? Telecommuting. It's not for everyone or every job, but telecommuting can certainly help us A) live in more accordance with nature and B) consume less resources that we would normally use for transportation.

Posted by Patrick Thornton on 29 Oct 2009

Everyone who focused on the gasoline metric as the main focus of what makes New Yorkers "green", and then proceeded to slash the article on that basis, is misguided.

It's not just about transportation; it's about energy efficiency in all ways - living in tiny apartments stacked together so that they use very little energy to heat or cool.

It's about having smaller families, generally, who all tend to use public transport/walk/ride their bikes to get around (no driving kids to school in NYC!) It's about being closer to your neighbors and friends, so that you actually socialize and hang out in parks or cafes or on your front stoop instead of burning electricity by watching TV/spending time responding to articles on the internet. ;)

It's true that it requires a tremendous amount of land to feed and cloth New Yorkers, but no more and probably less than it does to feed the citizen of any other part of the US.

And to David, who mourns NYC oysters...you can still have them. The harbor is plenty healthy now, and the locals fish and crab all the time. Walk down to the shore in Rockaway one day and have a look. And reexamine your assumptions.

Posted by not a new yorker on 29 Oct 2009

Have you ever been to New York City? It's the biggest eyesore on the planet. It's a toxic cesspool. It used to be the most beautiful harbor (ever!) Now its just 8 million people living in a pcb/superfund site.

My hometown is one of the most toxic spots in the country. The cancer rate there is insane. I never want to breathe those fumes again.

Posted by krissy on 29 Oct 2009

Thanks for this great article. Who would have thought!

I was reading about the World Wilderness Congress - Wild 9, a few days ago, and what caught my attention was that when the world's urban population surpassed that of countryside-dwellers it was considered as a major landmark in environmental conservation. Of course, the inherent efficiencies in large concentrations of people will always have a major positive impact in terms of energy and fuel usage, as you've illustrated in this article.

The drive towards urbanization to help protect the environment is just one of the many concepts that don't always fit our stereotypical ideas of what defines green living. I'm glad we're now starting to seriously focus and shed some scientific light on the real impacts of some things (like the rural Vermont lifestyle) we take for granted.

Posted by Emmanuel Gonot on 29 Oct 2009

David, how did you account in your evaluation for energy consumption in lighting, heating and cooling of those huge office skyscrapers that sit empty all night? Where/how does that show up in the per capita consumption?

Also, health issues in Bronx, for instance, asthma due to trucking pollution? How do you evaluate that--as it is a direct result of density?

Many thanks for a provocative article, can't wait to read the book.

Posted by Dominique Browning on 30 Oct 2009

Remember there are lies, damn lies, and then stats. Before you start looking for proofs outlining the next book that I will also buy, please read or re-read an old favorite: A Theory of Good City Form –(1984)

Lynch said if humans believe that land, water, plants and animals have value only for consumption uses, then any non-conversion is considered by economists as a lost "opportunity cost." That is, the value of the new houses or shopping centers is greater than the opportunity forgone. If plants and animals do have an intrinsic value, then some extra-market systems must arise to embrace new values. He says in each case one must ask, "…what is the cost in terms of anything else we would choose to value, in achieving a degree of vitality, sense, fit, access, and control? (Pg. 119) MIT Press.

So, sure dense places like New York City are per capita winners, when transportation related energy consumption comes into play. It skews everything else. Weight the averages. New York City’s per capita carbon footprint is smaller than other American places but like Rex Weyler from Vancouver notes, we are way-large in comparison to cities such as Toronto, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney Hamburg, Frankfurt, Zurich Brussels, Munich, Paris London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Singapore, Moscow and the king of high density and low per capita energy use Hong Kong.

Posted by Rex Curry on 30 Oct 2009

Gasoline consumed is a very important metric: about a third of our output of green house gases comes from individual vehicles. It's huge, and it's very hard to lower in low density settlements where human powered transportation is difficult because of distance.

Another misleading point made was about the area of land needed to grow food for New Yorkers. It's no different for semi-rural residents per person, and in fact Americans eat about 30 percent more calories than other well fed people around the world, we're just fatter. That in itself is a tremendous waste of resources. And you guessed it, the rural folks are heavier. All that driving and little walking.

It's interesting how shocked people seem to be to hear that NYC is a more sustainable pattern of settlement than modern Vermont, but carbon footprint is per capita. A person in Vermont generates more than twice as much carbon as a New Yorker. If people in modern rural life were subsistence farmers they would be able to be proud of their sustainable lifestyle, but that's a hard life that most modern Americans don't follow for good reason. The cottage on an acre of land is lived in the same way as an urban apartment, just with much greater inefficiencies in transportation of people and distribution of goods.

Posted by David Baker on 30 Oct 2009

I really like this article. We have a lot of work to do in NYC to make it more green.

The foundation is here to do many great things. There is a great amount of nature in NYC. NYC is such a great place to live and work. There is no place like it in the world. I have never owned a car and hope not to ever really need one. I could not do this outside the city. It's so great to be able to walk to most of the places I need to go or take mass transit.

It sounds like many people with all the negativity just don't like the great, magical,
mystical city of New York.

Thanks for the great article and getting people to think.

Posted by Dylan Keys on 31 Oct 2009

Good article and good discussion. I think a few of the criticisms of NY above are missing the point ... what the article is discussing is NYC as a pattern of settlement, and whether this has ecological value.

The fact that New Yorkers consume more per capita than the national average is due to the large population of wealthy people. If these wealthy people lived elsewhere, they would still consume at the high level (overall, probably even more, since in addition to high consumer spending they would be driving more).

Similarly to the criticisms of the large buildings for corporations and global trade ... when companies move out of the cities they still build giant complexes.

The point of the article is that it is advantageous for people and corporations to be in close proximity.

Posted by memory foam on 02 Dec 2009

Interesting figures and facts, but how can you come with the notion that N York is the greenest in the USA. You still use 82% fossil fuels for energy production which emits 1200 Lbs CO2 per Mwh

Posted by George Robinson on 21 Dec 2009

The headline is misleading.

New York's density allows it to have a smaller carbon footprint, but that does not make the place, itself, "green." How would you compare the air quality in NYC with that in Vermont?

Posted by Robert Tolmach on 28 Aug 2010

Vermont also has a tremendous amount of ground pollution.

Posted by Yoused Tulivtheir on 01 Jun 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a dozen books, the most recent of which is Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.



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