Is New York a “Sustainable” Metropolis?


Brooklyn garbage bag photo courtesy of Tom W. Sulcer via Wikimedia Commons

By Christopher X J. Jensen,

New York City has endured a pretty bad environmental reputation for decades. If you find yourself on a Manhattan street on the right warm summer night, it is hard not to feel that the place is an environmental nightmare. Those piles of garbage bags, that smell! The honking traffic and automobile fumes… NYC must be the biggest environmental disaster on the planet!

Those of us who have lived in and around New York City for most of our lives are capable of entertaining a different perspective. Perhaps it is because — as city residents — we have had to alter our aesthetic senses in order to survive amongst the compromises that high-density living creates. But part of that urban aesthetic is to appreciate the beauty in what the city has to offer: life in a more compact space where there’s just not enough room to accumulate a lot of stuff and pretty much everything you need can be found within a short walk or subway ride. And in that compactness, there’s a kind of sustainability.

In my eyes, the ultimate ode to the city’s green beauty is David Owen‘s essay “Green Manhattan“, which ran in The New Yorker back in 2004. Using a clever bait-and-switch, Owen allows the reader to see that while large cities like New York appear to be ecological disasters, their density actually points the way towards a sustainability of impact that the entire human population ought to aspire to. The subtitle of the article? Everywhere should be more like New York.

There is something to Owen’s central thesis: it is true that population density yields a number of efficiencies with the potential to reduce impact, perhaps even to sustainable levels. The scarcity of New York real estate makes space very expensive, which makes most of us less liable to own a lot of stuff. And from a transportation perspective, it is hard to imagine a city more suited for walking and low-per-capita-impact public transportation. Sure, the city environment may not seem — or even actually be — a healthy place, but in terms of per person impact, living out in the country is far worse.

The idea that cities are inherently sustainable makes sense when taken to a particular limit. But assuming that cities are more sustainable than suburban or rural areas is also dangerous, because most urban centers come nowhere near that limit. From a sustainability perspective, the ideal city is rare, and New York City is far from being a green exemplar.

As New Yorkers, we can look down our noses at most other cities when it comes to transportation. As this nice graphic representation from Scientific American (showing data from a 2015 PNAS paper) demonstrates, most so-called “cities” in the United States are really enormous suburbs whose increasing sprawl has led to carbon emissions that are both massive and increasing. When it comes to transportation impacts, it is hard to beat the geography and infrastructure of New York City.


Image source: Scientific American

But transportation is only one dimension of a city’s impact, and it’s often an impact category that we pay disproportionate attention to. Of comparable importance are impacts that originate in our architecture (electricity and heating) and our consumption patterns. While one might hope that the small footprint of New York housing would lead to only modest impacts resulting from building climate control and personal consumption habits, that hope proves to be naive. As this fascinating article in Motherboard points out, New York City produces the highest per-capita impacts of any megacity.

How could this be? I checked out the research article (“Energy and material flows of megacities“, also published in PNAS) that inspired the Motherboard piece, and the bare facts are distressing to any New Yorker with illusions about living in an idyllic green metropolis. When compared to other megacities, by a wide margin New York maintains the highest per-capita impacts in a number of categories: per-capita energy use, per-capita water consumption, and per-capita solid waste production.

Not good! If New York City has such potential for being sustainable, what causes it to fall short? Although the reasons are multiple and somewhat complex, they can be boiled down to a couple of factors: affluence and climate.

Why do we produce more solid waste than any other megacity? Well, in large part because we are among the most affluent of megacities. And worse yet, how New Yorkers leverage their affluence is a sustainability nightmare: while we may not keep a lot of stuff around, we still manage to consume a lot of stuff, stuff that is ultimately thrown away after a short life span. New York demonstrates quite well the flipside of large, dense cities with the potential to be green: because lots of wealthy conspicuous consumers live in NYC, we don’t come close to realizing our potential for sustainability.

The other problem is that New York’s climate is about as bad as you could imagine if you want to create a sustainable city. As any New Yorker knows well, we pretty much have two seasons: winter and summer. It can get frightfully cold in the Winter and frightfully warm and muggy in the Summer, with only a few weeks of Spring and Fall to break up our incessant use of fossil fuels to keep ourselves warm and cool enough. While there are some efficiencies associated with heating or cooling a densely-occupied apartment building, it is still more efficient not to have to use energy to heat or cool. That Los Angelenos use less energy gives you a sense of just how big an impact wintertime heating can have.

It’s also important to recognize the arena in which New York City compares so poorly: megacities. In some sense, we are the “worst of the best”. Most of the “cities” in the United States are not megacities, they are the aforementioned blobs of suburban sprawl, so it is quite likely that many of them — especially in comparable climates — maintain even higher per-capita impacts. That just means that our national sustainability problem is complexly vexing.

There’s room for optimism in the realization that — as currently constituted — New York City is far from being sustainable. Our problem is in large part our affluence, and the effects of our affluence can be modified. A change in the consumer habits of New Yorkers is well within our grasp, and could dramatically reduce both our consumption of energy and production of waste. Climate is a bit more difficult to deal with, as we are not as likely to want to give up being comfortable, especially in the winter. But a combination of better building design and more extensive use of renewable sources of energy could mitigate our impacts and help us deal with the Achilles’ heel of being located in a temperate zone.

So if you are a New Yorker with sustainable aspirations, this is no time to flaunt your green pride. But with some work, the urban potential is still there.